Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)
...generations have admired Prince Rupert's courage in serving his uncle King Charles I during the Civil War, where he commanded the Royalist cavalry at engagements such as Edge Hill and Marston Moor...
Until recently this portrait was thought to depict James II when Duke of York, however a study of the physiognomy immediately confirms the subject as James’ cousin Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a prominent naval commander in post-Restoration England.
Prince Rupert has enjoyed in posterity a better reputation than he may ever have had during his life. Quite rightly, subsequent generations have admired his courage in serving his uncle King Charles I during the Civil War, where he commanded the Royalist cavalry at engagements such as Edge Hill and Marston Moor. They have equally found sympathetic the scientific and artistic curiosity that he was able to indulge after the Restoration. He was closely involved in the business of the Royal Society and, for example, introduced Rupert’s Drops to this country. He was also a pioneer of mezzotint engraving - although he did not, as once thought, invent the process- and corresponded on the subject with John Evelyn.
Rupert suffered, however, from the jealously and mistrust of two sets of the population. On the one hand, he was feared by his adversaries of the 1640s, both as an accomplished general, and -sometimes with reason - as a foreign soldier who fought his battles with the bloodthirstiness more commonly seen on the battlefields of Europe, on which he had, of course, come of age, fighting for his father’s throne in Bohemia. There was a good number of people in England who would never wish him well after rumoured massacres in actions such as the siege of Birmingham. For this reason, among others, although he enjoyed a career as an admiral under Charles II, observers such as Pepys seldom speak kindly of him or take any pleasure in his successes. Equally, for the second part of his detractors, he suffered from the jealousy of all of those royalists who were less talented and courageous in the field, and who resented him having command over them because he was a foreigner. It is pleasing, therefore, that after his death at least, he is appreciated as a dynamic officer, popular with those under his command who were not blinded by jealousy, and as an intelligent and inquiring mind who may be said to have assisted at the birth of English scientific investigation.
In this portrait Rupert is shown wearing the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter which he joined in 1642 on the invitation of King Charles I. The Order of the Garter was one of the highest orders of chivalry in Europe, and the member knights took considerable pleasure in the opulence of the Garter costume; their habit of wearing the robes not only for the Garter procession at Windsor and for the subsequent feast but for walking afterwards in Windsor Great Park provoked the criticism of Samuel Pepys.
It appears that Rupert only sat to the great seventeenth-century court painter Sir Peter Lely once and the ad vivum head study was then used as the basis for a number of compositions by Lely and his talented studio assistants. A number of variants of this portrait-type exist and other examples can be found in the National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 608] and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich [BHC 2989].