Friday 15 July 2011

The Painted Past: The Princes in the Tower

Welcome to another three-day weekend of art history and nonsense, it is kind of you to join me.  Over the next three days we will be looking at the Victorian response to tragic figures in British history: The Princes in the Tower, Lady Jane Grey and Mary Queen of Scots.  Hopefully you will also be reading along with the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood’s book of the month, The Arrow Chest by Robert Parry, whose central character is an artist who finds his life is echoing past events with harrowing consequences.  Links to both will be at the end of this post, so on with the history!

I’ll start with the Princes in the Tower, who are probably most familiar through Shakespeare’s Richard III.  Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, were staying in the Tower of London, but had been inconveniently between Richard and the throne and so "disappeared" in 1483, never to be seen alive again.  Agents working on behalf of Richard confessed to smothering the children and burying the bodies at the foot of the stairs, where skeletons were discovered during Stuart renovations of the White Tower.  So, here we have our set up, all well known by the nineteenth century and all fixed in the public consciousness, whether or not it was true in all it’s aspects.  It is within these parameters that artists worked to interpret the events for the public, starting with Paul Delaroche…

King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London (1831) Paul Delaroche
Two children sit reading in a sumptious chamber, but their attention has strayed.  Edward V, recognisable by his garter, is lost in thought, but his brother and their spaniel are listening to noises coming from the hallway, presumably the approach of their murderers.  The expression of the younger boy is fearful and apprehensive, but the King remains stoical, obviously thinking on higher matters, emphasising his ‘kingly’ character.  I’ve started with Delaroche, a French artist, because he produced this work (and another which we’ll look at later) less than forty years after the executions of the French royal family, so possibly the murder and mayhem of the British past could be seen as a cipher for events within living memory in France.

The Princes in the Tower (1878) J E Millais
There is a Doctor Who story called The Kingmaker where the princes in the tower are revealed to be princesses.  You have to wonder looking at the above image if Millais had the same thought.  Damn, I wish my hair was as fabulous as that, that’s almost Farrah Fawcett flicks.  Apparently, Millais used both girls and boys as the models, which comes as no surprise looking at those two.  The Duke of York looks a bit like my daughter, for goodness sake. 

So, gone are the comfy surroundings and we have our two frightened boys on a stairway, possibly hinting at the alleged burial site.  Edward V is again recognisable by his garter, but yet again it is his brother who seems to be alert to the coming danger as he turns towards the light at the top of the steps.  Possibly again, Edward’s mind was on ‘Kingly matters’, like ‘Where’s my spaniel gone?’ 

While it lacks the depth of detail that Delaroche packed into his canvas, Millais nails the audience’s sympathy with the fear on these angelic children’s faces. Look at them, they are just two frightened boys with only each other for protection and some swine is going to come and kill them.  Isn’t history a heartless bitch?

The Princes in the Tower (1861) Henrietta Mary Ada Ward
A sort of middle ground between the two pictures come in the form of Henrietta Ward’s The Prince’s in the Tower of 1861.  The two boys are in a richly furnished room, with the light filtering in through the small window, beautifully catching the food on the table in a precious still life.

Again, the King is distracted, but his brother, spaniel-sharp, has sensed some approaching threat. Probably something like this...

The Princes in the Tower James Northcote
So far, the audience has been left to fill in the blanks of the children’s actual murder, but in case you lacked in imagination or just like seeing kids in peril, James Northcote is on hand to help you out.  Two deeply unpleasant characters are seconds away from smothering these again very girly princes.  The grotesque-ness of the men, seemingly grinning or grimacing as they advance the pillow over the sleeping figures is in sharp contrast to the delicate porcelain forms of the princes, bathed in pure light that highlights their Bible and the crucifix on the wall, in case you were in any doubt who were the goodies in this image.  Exactly why the man in armour would chose to smother the children when he has a great big sword is probably not a very wholesome thought on my part.  It does seem a bit of a faff, although, I suppose, cleaner.  Moving on…

The Princes Sleeping in the Tower Augusta Freeman
Oh look, I’ve brought a bit of sculpture into the mix.  The first time I saw this I thought, ‘Yuck, sentimental Victorian kiddiewinks all tucked up in bed’.  Then Mr Walker said, in his usual tone, ‘You do realise their dead, don’t you?’ Oh, now it gets interesting…Obviously it plays on the funereal tradition of ‘just sleeping’ rather than dead, but these boys have been murdered, so are we looking at the moment before or after the death?

Then a very unpleasant thought struck me as I looked down at the little cherubic features. 

I am their murderer.

I am stood above these children either about to kill them or having just killed them.  This is not a cute excuse to show chubby little Victorian children, this is audience-as-perpetrator.  The unique thing about the sculpture as opposed to the paintings is that you can physically get in the position necessary to smother the princes.  In none of the canvases is the audience in the right position to be involved in the action, we are merely helpless bystanders, as much use as that damn spaniel.  We can see the light in the passage but we can’t stop the hulking great big men from snuffing out the two boys, we can only watch.  With the sculpture, we are the hulking great big murderers, and that is a powerful thing to realise.

I’m off for a stiff drink and I’ll see you tomorrow.

To join the fun with The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood reading project:
To buy The Arrow Chest by Robert Parry: or (or an Amazon near you!)

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