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Corridor Portraits

Thu Dec 10, 2015

By Lawrence Hendra

Henry IV (1367-1413), English School, c.1600

Corridor Portraits

A ‘corridor portrait’ is typically a bust-length portrait depicting a king, queen or other notable figure which would have hung in a long gallery or corridor of a stately Elizabethan or Jacobean manor. They were normally produced as part of a chronological set and not taken from life, but bust based on earlier images. There was a lesser fashion on the continent for the same but it remained a predominantly English phenomenon.

King Richard III (1453-1485), English School, Late 16th Century

[Previously with Philip Mould & Co.].

When were they painted?

The fashion for this style of portraiture was well established towards the end of the sixteenth century, although there are examples of similar works produced before this date. The fashion lasted throughout the late-Tudor period and roughly up until the end of the reign of James VI& I. With Charles I as the new de facto mediator of court taste, the fashion began to shift towards the more flamboyant baroque style which ushered in a new era of English painting.

Who was depicted?

Historic kings and queens are perhaps the most frequently seen subjects of corridor portraits, however patrons would also commission images of other noteworthy people including statesmen and religious figures. Sets of portraits – few of which survive, could have been commissioned as a whole or built up over time by the owner. One of the most important extant sets of monarchical corridor portraiture is the so-called Hornby Castle set at the National Portrait Gallery, London [NPG 4980 (1-16)]. These were not all produced in the same workshop although technical and stylistic analysis suggest they were all painted between c.1590s and 1620.

King James VI & I (1566-1625), English School, c.1618

Why were they painted?

They were commissioned for both aesthetic and political reasons.

The late-Elizabethan period saw a rapid rise in the construction of large manor houses by the wealthy members of the gentry and aristocracy with large and imposing ‘long galleries’ for recreational activities and entertaining their guests. These vast interior spaces propelled the market for this style of portraiture which was easy to commission and very decorative. When displayed in these long galleries, portraits of past and present monarchs would have also visually demonstrated allegiance to the monarchy whilst in the process legitimising the family’s connection to the crown.

Who painted them?

We know relatively little about the workshops that produced this type of portraiture, and due to the fact that many of them shared the same portrait tracing or ‘pattern’, the process of identifying individual painters is difficult. In some instances however it is possible to distinguish with relative certainty portraits made within the same workshop. This can be done through the study of consistent idiosyncrasies such as the handling of the drapery, design of regalia and treatment of facial features. The style of inscription too can be a useful way of establishing connections between individual portraits, although this should always be approached with caution as sometimes inscriptions identifying the subject were amended to make them more commercially appealing, or simply misunderstood by past conservators.

To learn more about corridor portraits and the art of this period visit the 'Making Art in Tudor Britain' section of the National Portrait Gallery website.