Royal portraits from the National Portrait Gallery London at Sydney

Royal portraits from the National Portrait Gallery London at Sydney
Yareah Magazine

Royal portraits from the National Portrait Gallery London at Sydney. On view 3 Jul – 28 Sep 2014. Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney.

Royal portraits from the National Portrait Gallery London at Sydney

Robert Peake the Elder Prince of Wales c1610 (detail), oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London

In association with Australia’s most prestigious portrait prize – the Archibald Prize – the Art Gallery of New South Wales has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery, London to bring to Australia two exceptional 17th-century portraits of Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth, the two eldest children of King James I of England and VI of Scotland.

This is the first time that these outstanding paintings have travelled to Australia. The exhibition is part of the Gallery’s portraiture season that includes the Archibald Prize and the current exhibition at the Brett Whiteley Studio looking at Whiteley’s approach to portraiture. The lost prince and the winter queen will be displayed in the intimate Lowy Gonski Gallery.

These paintings are by the remarkable Jacobean portraitist Robert Peake the Elder (c1551–1619), an artist whose works are rarely seen. Painted in a compelling, highly decorative and detailed style, they represent the height of fashionable British court portraiture that continued the splendour of the reign of Elizabeth I.

The lives of these young royals are as fascinating as their jewel-like portraits. Both Henry and Elizabeth were targeted in the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, when oppressed Roman Catholic insurgents attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. King James and Prince Henry would have perished and Elizabeth would have been kidnapped and installed as the puppet monarch had Guy Fawkes and his associates succeeded.

The tragic story of Henry, Prince of Wales was highlighted in 2012 in an acclaimed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London titled The lost prince: the life and death of Henry Stuart. Athletic, cultured and handsome, the teenage prince represented ‘all the hopes’ of an entire nation; and his early death was devastating. The King was so distraught that he was unable to attend his own son’s funeral.

Henry’s devoted younger sister Elizabeth, also distraught, was married only months later, on Valentine’s Day 1613. She and her husband, the staunchly Protestant Frederick V, were briefly installed as king and queen of Bohemia, only to be driven out of the capital Prague by Catholic rebels. Their short reign earned them the title of the ‘The Winter King and Queen’, and they were forced into exile for the rest of their lives.

Peake’s meticulous works were painted on the eve of these tragic events, when Henry was 16 and Elizabeth only 14 years of age — two young lives brimming with potential. The portraits preserve the magnificence of the early Jacobean court and exemplify the most meaningful and enduring function of portraiture: to preserve the self-image of significant individuals for posterity.

Portraiture season

A wealth of events for all ages, including fun family and education programs, takes a closer look at the art of portraiture, both historical and contemporary. Over 10 weeks, Art After Hours features Archibald finalists and other public figures discussing today’s famous faces; talks and tours take in hidden portrait gems in the Gallery’s collection; and a symposium showcases the latest research on the genre. For families, hands-on workshops, tours and free school holiday performances bring portraits to life.

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