Sweet child of mine
Country Life UK|May 05, 2021
It took centuries for the ringleted baby Jesus and diminutive royal ‘adult’ to give way to images of the mirth and mischief of childhood on canvas, says Matthew Dennison
Matthew Dennison

TWO artists, two paintings, the same subject and shared assumptions: in 1608, English miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard accepted a royal commission to paint James I’s second son, Charles; two years later, Hilliard’s best-known pupil, Isaac Oliver, also painted the future Charles I. No more than a passing resemblance links the two images of the sandy-haired prince. At eight and 10 years old, Charles is depicted as a diminutive adult dressed in the costly clothing of his royal rank.

In his portrait of Lady Leicester’s family, Marcus Gheeraerts gives the two sons and four daughters distinct personalities, so the portrait becomes more than a mere statement of dynastic security

Some three decades earlier, in 1574, Arnold Bronckhorst had executed a similar portrait of Charles’s father: James VI of Scotland dressed for hawking aged eight. A bird of prey rests on his gauntleted hand, on his head is a plumed cap; only a determined expression on the pale, childish face conveys intimations of character. As are Hilliard and Oliver’s miniatures and the gold-leaf-enriched, full-length portrait of five-year-old Charles that Robert Peake had painted early in 1605, now in Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Bronckhorst’s image is more concerned with status than psychological insight or private identity.

And thus it had been for centuries. Historically, children’s portraiture—one of the focuses of the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters this year —objectified children as reflections of the adult world of their parents. Mostly confined to royal and noble subjects, these paintings presented their sitters to the viewer as embodiments of grown-up ambition: links in a genetic chain, the latest incarnation of dynastic aspiration.

In the New Year of 1539, a portrait by Hans Holbein of Henry VIII’s longed-for son, Edward, was given to the ageing king. Holbein’s Edward is still a baby. Dressed in the style of his royal father, he holds his golden rattle like a sceptre and raises one hand in a gesture of benediction, a sovereign in miniature. A Latin verse by Richard Morison occupies the bottom of the canvas. It flatters Henry; it makes good the purpose of the painting by emphasising the succession.

Half a millennium later, a photographic portrait of The Queen by American photographer Annie Leibovitz, released to mark Her Majesty’s 90th birthday, partly served a similar purpose. It pictures the monarch in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle with her youngest grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, including her heir in the third generation, Prince George of Cambridge.

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