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Mould & Co. Most Wanted: James VI & I (1566-1625)

Fri Dec 2, 2016

By Lawrence Hendra

King James VI of Scotland and I of England is forever at the top of our gallery’s ‘Most Wanted’ list. Despite being the successor of Elizabeth I and predecessor to Charles I – two of England’s greatest portrait patrons - James’s likeness is incredibly scarce, and only a few times in the last thirty years have we been graced with his presence in the gallery.

James’s noticeably meagre representation within the iconography of past British rulers is no reflection of his success or importance as a monarch, but rather a consequence of his dislike for sitting to portrait painters. This unfortunate lack of recorded likenesses has long been lamented; one scholar, writing later in 1650, describes how the King ‘could never be brought to sit for the taking of that [picture] which is the reason of so few good pieces of him.’[1]

Nevertheless, Philip Mould & Co. have handled a few notable portraits of James, three of which are of particular interest and are discussed below.

The first was a very early portrait of a young James, discovered in 2011 in a minor London auction, where it was obscured by many layers of discoloured varnish and described as a ‘portrait of a girl’. Concealed beneath the dirt, however, was a remarkable portrait of James aged 9, painted c.1575, wearing court dress and an elaborate feathered hat. It was clear that our painting related to the portrait of James aged 8 by Arnold Bronckorst, painter to the Edinburgh court, which is now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery [PG 992], although there were notable differences.

Firstly, in our portrait James looked like a miniature adult, with a more elongated, masculine face – quite different to the Bronckorst portrait in which James was shown as a child. Secondly, the costume was quite different; in our portrait James was wearing fine court dress with a large lace ruff and high collared cloak, whereas in the Bronckhorst portrait James was wearing hunting clothes and holding a sparrow hawk. Therefore, it was likely that our portrait was an updated likeness of James, based on the earlier head-type, and adjusted to mark the occasion of his introduction at court.

Remarkably, we also discovered that our portrait was painted over the top of an image of a saint. Perhaps this was simply a case of recycling a wood panel, as these were expensive, but it may also reflect the increasingly reformist attitudes of the Scottish court at that date.

Recently, we discovered the unusual portrait of James illustrated below. It was painted much later in 1604, the year after James was crowned King of England and Ireland, and had a very different purpose to the portrait discussed above. Unlike the portrait of young James, which aimed to transmit little more than a reliable likeness of a young king, the 1604 portrait had a deeper, political purpose, and aimed to communicate and promote the concept of union between England and Scotland through symbolic devices.

In March 1604 James delivered his first speech to Parliament, and later in October claimed the title of ‘King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland’. This new title can be seen inscribed in Latin in the top left corner of our recently acquired portrait, and also appeared on a new coinage minted soon after. The use of this title was a bold move, as prior to this England and Scotland had always maintained their independent identities, and neither Parliament liked the idea of a full political union under the banner of Great Britain.

The inscription is supported by the coat of arms displayed in the upper right corner, which was introduced by James soon after his accession, and quartered the arms of England (in the 1st and 4th quarters) with Scotland (2nd quarter) and Ireland (3rd quarter). Two roses sprout from the date ‘1604’ inscribed beneath this device; the white rose is symbolic of the House of York and the red rose of the House of Lancaster. The two roses intertwine above the crown on top of the arms to form a Tudor (or ‘Union’) rose – a clear symbolic reference to James’s pedigree as great-grandson of Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII.

James is shown holding a sceptre in his right hand, his left resting on top of an orb. Within the orb there is depicted a stormy seascape with small vessels flanked either side by large waves or rocks. A rock in the foreground is dangerously close to a passing ship, and the flames at its base may warn of impending danger. This imagery is most likely an extension of the strong message of unity seen elsewhere in the work; divided lands and troubled waters are all themes to which James relates in his 1604 speech to Parliament. Above this scene of drama, however, is a bright sky with sunlight bursting through clouds – symbolic, perhaps, of divine light, reflecting James’s unifying, protective presence over his subjects.

It is unclear which portrait influenced the artist of the present work. It shows an obvious similarity with the De Critz half-length portrait-type (a version of which resides in Scottish National Portrait Gallery), but also bears a close resemblance to a recently discovered portrait of James by Nicholas Hilliard painted c.1603 (private collection, UK).

The final portrait to discuss here was painted c.1618-20 and is remarkable for its presentation of James as an opulent and glamourous monarch. It utilises a head-type (or ‘pattern’) painted by John de Critz c.1604, and follows closely his full-length composition pattern in circulation until about 1618, when Paul van Somer painted more up to date likeness of James. The striking costume James is shown wearing can be dated to 1618 onwards, and was therefore either painted just before Van Somer’s new likeness was circulated, or afterwards in a conscious effort to flatter the king. Given the painting was once owned by the Protestant Dukes of Saxe-Coburg, (a duchy then only recently independent from Saxony and in need of Protestant allies), it would make perfect sense for James to be portrayed as a young, energetic leader, and not as a more senior, middle-aged man.

[1] Sir A. Weldon, The Court and Character of King James, (London, 1650), reprinted by G. Smeeton, (London, 1817), pp.55-59. Cited in R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, (London, 1969), Vol. 1, p.178