Portraits are on everyone’s mind entering the Art Gallery of NSW, adjacent to The Royal Botanical Gardens and Domain… both great public spaces in Sydney.
The crowds are currently flocking to see the annual prizewinners and the finalist entries in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes in its usual large basement area exhibition space. The finalists in the young ‘Archie’s’ are also on display adding to richness of the spectacle.
Upstairs however, on the Macquarie Street level, tucked away in a quiet corner behind the main front building’s classical façade is the truly delightful small Lowy, Gonski Gallery designed by the official Colonial Architect, WL Vernon, in the late 1800s.
This charming room opened as a new exhibition space in 2005, was named after two former presidents of the Board of Trustees, Frank Lowy and David Gonski.
Currently it is the home of a pair of exceptional right royal 17th century very poignant portraits, lent by the National Portrait Gallery, London.
The prince and princess who posed for them were the eldest children of King James I of England and VI of Scotland (1566-1625).
They were both young; Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612) aged 16 and Princess Elizabeth (1596 – 1662), aged 14.
They were also both targeted for assassination in the infamous Gunpowder plot of 1605, a failed attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.
Destined to die suddenly aged 18 from the virulent typhoid fever, Henry became Prince of Wales aged 16 and in his portrait this is indicated by the spray of white ostrich feathers on his hat, an insignia still in use today.
Around his neck is the medallion named for St George, patron saint of England. It is worn by knights on non ceremonial occasions.
He belonged to the oldest honourable and most exclusive of the chivalric orders of England, the Order of the Garter whose Latin motto is Honi soit qui mal y pense, ‘shame on he who thinks evil of it’. With an interest in architecture, music and literature, he was distinguished by an amiable countenance and sweet smile.
By the point in his life when Robert Peake the Elder (151-1619) recorded this image using oil on canvas, Henry had already amassed an impressive art collection.
He was known to be ‘galant’ and his costume reflects his ‘Italianate taste’ and had planned to install Italian-style gardens at Richmond Palace.
Considered a well-educated handsome, cultured and athletic young man his early unexpected and sudden demise entirely dashed his family and his nation’s hopes.
He was mourned for weeks, his body lying in state for a month. Great writers wrote elegies while the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville recorded that “Our rising sun is set ere scarce he had sone, and all our glory lies buried”.
Briefly Elizabeth became the Queen of Bohemia, suffering exile when her husband died as ‘The Winter Queen’.
By the age of twelve she was fluent in several languages including French. She was schooled in natural history, geography, theology, history, music, dancing and writing. Her love of literature means there several of her books have survived, saved as mementoes.
She met her future husband Frederick V, Count Palatine of the Rhine a Protestant defender of the faith who reputedly ‘delighted in her company and conversation’.
They were married in the royal chapel of the Palace of Whitehall in February 1613 and his brief rule as King of Bohemia came to an end when forced to defend his title by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II.
He had not wanted to give Bohemia up as one of this protectorate’s so he gathered his forces and routed Frederick’s at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620 starting the Thirty Years’ War across much of Northern and Central Europe.
This ensured Elizabeth was thereafter referred to as the “Winter Queen”.
Elizabeth and Frederick had 13 children and when he died of a virulent fever unexpectedly in 1643 she lived the remainder of her life in difficult circumstances.
She lived at the Hague as a guest of the Prince of Orange and following a visit to Charles II in London in 1661, remained there until she died in 1662.
It would be her grandson George 1 through her daughter Sophie who began the great age of Georgian grace.
The portraits of Elizabeth and Henry are a powerful statement of wealth and status painted around 1610 by an English court portraitist, Robert Peake the Elder (c1551–1619).
For me they are stunning examples of the ‘art of portraiture’, which is at the heart of the traditions surrounding British Art that began in the sixteenth century.
Britons embraced the idea of defining their national self-definition with portraiture and when painter and social commentator William Hogarth (1697-1764) established a native school of artists during the eighteenth century, he ensured that displaying the British persona became an integral aspect of a grand-national portraiture style.
Sitters were often portrayed in amazing finery fit for kings if they weren’t royal, or flattered by overt or implicit comparison to the ancient gods or muses, military heroes and intellectual geniuses.
The Lost Prince and the Winter Queen are portrayed as elegant highly detailed and stylized figures. They both have a remarkable intensity that draws you into their realm, adding to their magnetism.
The exquisite rendering of the textiles they were wearing at the time, and the marvellous carpets they are standing on certainly did it for me.
It was such a privilege to have the quite beautiful personal and intimate space of the Lowy Gonski gallery to view The Lost Prince and The Winter Queen in without any distractions, a quiet place where they could both be contemplated and celebrated.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
until 28 Sep 2014
Lowy, Gonski Gallery,
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney