Photo: Attributed to Heindrick Gerritsz Pot (Dutch, c. 1585-1657) Portrait of a Gentleman, n.d. Oil on wood panel 7 x 5 1/4 in. (17.8 x 13.3 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Mary Frick Jacobs Collection, BMA 1938.385
Studying art history is an endlessly thrilling affair. Whether snooping around a museum store, or strolling through a large country house, one never knows what one might encounter. The internet has made all of these thrills possible at the click of a mouse.
I myself am a self-confessed addict of museum search engines. Whatever your interest, be it historic fashion, curiosities, mythologies or swords, you’ll probably be able to find something relatable in an online collection.
My recent search, and subsequent re-discovery, occurred while scouring through the collection at the Baltimore Art Museum (BMA). As I combed through the various unidentified portraits, I came across a face I recognised instantly.
Detail of the Baltimore Portrait
Then described as ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’, and attributed to the Dutch artist Heindrick / Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (c.1585-1657), this was a face I knew well. The thin moustachioed lips and the heavy eye lids, the awkward frame of the ornate lace collar coupled with the glint of the garter badge, meant it could be none other than one of Britain’s only kings to lose his head (literally).
King Charles I (1600-1649), who famously lost a disastrous Civil War against his own Parliament, was a significant patron of the arts. Indeed, the BMA’s superb Rinaldo and Armida by Anthony Van Dyck was once part of the King’s collection. This particular image of the Prince was made when he was in his twenties. Indeed, it was produced one year before Charles succeeded his father James I to the throne. It is likely that this high quality portrait dates to around 1624, shortly after the Prince returned from Spain when marriage negotiations with Philip IV’s court ended in humiliation for Charles. It was after this debacle that the Prince started wearing a moustache and pointy beard, very much evident in the delicate Baltimore picture.
The Baltimore portrait of Charles is based on a large full length portrait traditionally ascribed to Flemish painter Daniel Mytens (1590-1647) which survives in versions at Longleat, Knole and in the British Embassy in Dublin. (1) Another bust-length portrait of the Prince by Mytens is found in the Royal Collection. Although the reasons for its creation are unknown, it is an image which attempts to project the growing authority and dignity of the young Prince.
Charles was painted in armour throughout his life. Naturally, the image of the shining knight in armour is one of the most enduring images in Art History. Armour, a much understood art form, was used as a complex tool for self fashioning and projecting images of masculinity and princely authority. Although the traditional armoured warrior was becoming less of a feature on the battle field during the 1600s, the symbolic meaning conjured in wearing protective steel plates was still considered important throughout the century.
This portrait also serves as a reminder of the looming shadow of Charles’s older brother, Prince Henry. Henry Frederick, who died unexpectedly in 1612 at the age of eighteen, was heralded as the new King Arthur in masques devised for the Stuart court. This young Prince, who would have become King Henry IX if he had lived, bore the hopes and expectations of his frail ageing father King James. Not only was he a patron to the arts, and a collector of Italian paintings, but also a keen athlete and jouster. A great deal of his portraits show Henry dressed in the exquisite armours that were made for him to participate in knightly tournaments. After Henry’s death, Charles, a young man who was often described as being rather feeble in physique, seems to have adopted the visual culture left to him by his deceased brother.
Tournament Armour, c. 1610, Royal Armour Workshops at Greenwich, II.73. Royal Armouries, Leeds.
Within the Baltimore painting, the Prince wears a plain half armour which bearing the characteristics of those made at the Royal Workshops at Greenwich. Indeed, the suit he wears in the portrait bears a remarkable resemblance to a surviving tournament armour in the Royal Armouries in Leeds (see image above). (2) We know that Charles took part in several tournaments and festivities that required the wearing of such an armour. His first tournament took place on 24 March 1620, where it was said with an air of flattery that “himself [Prince Charles] ran exceedingly well and absolutely best of the whole troupe.” (3) As part of the displays of martial technique, the Prince would have been expected to participate in combat at the barriers, which involved fighting in armour with weapons across a fence like barrier ensuring only skillful blows to the upper body and head were delivered. It seems Charles also took part in several displays of horseman ship, including running with a lance at a ring suspended from a frame. He is recorded as participating in this contest in January 1621 in front of the French ambassador, and also in December 1624 around the time when the first of these particular armoured portraits were produced.
Although armoured portraits projected images of power, they are often found in the many portrait miniatures by the likes of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. (4) Their popularity seems to have been on both large and small scale. The rather fine and tight brushwork evident in the Baltimore oil on panel picture is reminiscent of the work by Dutch fijnschilders, who often painted small portraits like these on glass like oak panels. We know that Charles was a patron to at least one fijnschiler, the aforementioned Heindrick Gerritsz Pot of Haarlem, who painted the King several times later on in the early 1630s. The painter Cornelis Janssens (born in London in 1593 to Dutch or Flemish parents) also captured several small full length portraits of the King’s children at the end of the decade, a dramatic contrast to the large fluid portraits made by Van Dyck. Although the painter of the Baltimore picture may have been a simple but talented copyist, the high quality of the piece is certainly worthy of note.
Alas, time and changing fashions have been unkind to this picture. It was probably at some point during the nineteenth century when the panel support was hacked into an oval shape, and thinned down drastically, to suit the changing tastes for displaying small portraits in this manner. It is likely that this was undertaken when the painting was in the possession of collector Hollingworth Mangniac (1786-1867), where it may have been paired with its current extravagant gilded neo-Rococo frame. The portrait was acquired by Mary Frick Jacobs from the sale of the collection in 1892, where it was still known as King Charles, and was later part of the large and generous bequest made to the BMA in 1938. (5)
We don’t know when the identification of the portrait with the Prince was lost, but, it certainly makes for a thrilling rediscovery – all possible from an armchair thousands of miles away from Baltimore.
1) The Dublin picture, which is currently called Henry Prince of Wales (?), was purchased from the Tollemache Collection, of Peckforton Castle, through Christie’s, London, 15 May 1953, lot 149. Another version, formerly called George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham and whose current whereabouts is unknown, was sold from the Panshanger Collection, Christie’s, London, 16 October 1953, lot 101.
2) This resemblance of the armour to that found in the Mytens portrait is noted in the cataloguing on the Royal Armouries Website.
3) Letter from John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carlton dated 24 March 1620 transcribed in A. Nießner, Die Accession Days, 2015, p.164.
4) A related portrait miniature of the Prince by Peter Oliver was formerly with Philip Mould & Co – http://www.historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=1508&Desc=Charles-I-(1600-49)-%7C-Peter-Oliver
5) Christie’s, London, 2 July 1892, lot 23 (as ‘Taken in Spain when travelling with the Duke of Buckingham’.) Note – This provenance is interesting, but improbable.