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Plate 1.4: Portrait of Richard II
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.4. Commentary by Noah Heringman.
Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after Giuseppe Grisoni (1699-1769) in 1718, from the collection of John Talman (1677-1726 ). The minutes for 19 February 1718 state that “it is proposd . . . to engrave Richard ii’s picture in Westminster Abby, and Mr. Director Talman is desird and authorisd to have a Drawing taken of it with all convenient speed” (SAL Minutes I.10). The print was distributed to members and also released to booksellers to sell at two shillings and sixpence a copy, with sixpence profit to the sellers (I.19).
Object: Portrait of Richard II, oil on panel, c. 1395, 7’ x 3 ½’, formerly attributed to André Beauneveu (c. 1335-c. 1400). The raised gesso background, cross, and scepter featured prominently in the engraving were leveled when the painting was restored in 1866; the current frame was also added at that time. The portrait is currently located in Westminster Abbey, on the south side of the nave near the west entrance. It was probably painted in situ and moved to its current location when the old stalls were dismantled in 1775.
RICHARDUS II REX ANGLIӔ / Ex Tabula antiquissima In Choro D. Petri Westmonast: Pulvinari insidet aureo induiturq[ue] interiori veste viridi cui grandiusculi intexuntur Flores aurie, et Nominis sui elementum initiale coronatum: Uterq[ue] Pes emicat ostro et crepidis aureis velatus: Totum circum fundit Trabea coccinea Pellibus Armenianis duplicata, quӕ et aureo Collari subnectitur. Gypso inaurato variisq[ue] Flosculis et Crucibus protuberanti quod reliquum est Tabulӕ obducitur. SOCIETAS Londini Rei Antiquariӕ Studiosa in Ӕre incidi Curavit A.D. MDCCXVIII. / Long. ped. 6. Unc. 11. Lat. ped. 3. Unc. 7. Ex collectione J. Talman, Ar. Vertue Sculp.
Richard II, King of England, From a most ancient painting in the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Westminster: He sits in gold filigree and is dressed in a green garment, the lower parts of which are covered in golden flowers and his first initial, which is crowned: each foot appears prominently in purple and is covered in gold slippers: This is covered by a white mantle [trabea], lined with scarlet ermine, and is also secured with a gold collar. The remainder of the painting is covered with gilded gypsum and various small flowers and raised crosses. The Society of Antiquaries of London undertook its engraving in copper in the year 1718. From the collection of J. Talman, Esquire. Vertue, engraver.
Commentary by Noah Heringman: George Vertue’s highly finished engraving of this historic portrait—as drawn for the purpose by Giuseppe Grisoni—lavishes attention on the king’s robes, reproducing the materials and drapery with minute precision. In one respect however, the eighteenth-century artists depart significantly from the original. The painting shows a sour-faced king, with the corners of his mouth turned downward, leading Richard’s biographer Nigel Saul to observe that “in the haunting portrait in Westminster Abbey he comes across as a lonely, even a bitter, man” (1997, 453). The engraving not only turns the corners of his mouth upward, it also erases the strong lines leading from the nose down to the corners of the mouth and considerably widens the eyes and forehead, creating a more youthful and benevolent monarch. In addition, there is an obvious error, a left-right reversal common in print media: in the painting, Richard’s left eye is higher than his right. Other minor alterations are more decorative in nature: the shape of the crown is more slender and elegant, Richard’s hair is more orderly, and the artists have employed a more sophisticated knowledge of perspective to give the seat and arms of the chair more depth.
Unlike the previous two plates (Plates 1.2 and 1.3), prepared from pre-existing drawings, both the drawing and the engraving for this plate were specially commissioned for the series, as indicated by the Minute Book (SAL Minutes I.94). As usual with these early plates, the minutes provide no clue as to the antiquaries’ motivation for recording (and preserving) this object. Like the previous two plates, this one shows a substantial work of art permanently exhibited in a church and unlikely to be moved or exhibited elsewhere. With its depiction of a late medieval artifact, this plate falls between the previous two in date, indicating that the chronological scope of Vetusta Monumenta was broad and ambitious from the beginning. The choice of subject seems to have more to do with the quality of the painting than with a resurgence of interest in Richard himself, though the volume as a whole shows a strong interest in royal monuments including the Eleanor Crosses of Edward I (Plate 1.7), the tomb of Edward the Confessor (1.16), and a roll depicting a tournament at the court of Henry VIII (1.21-1.26) (also in Westminster Abbey). Apart from its size and splendor, special features of the painting highlighted by the Latin caption include extensive gilding and the use of raised and textured surfaces, especially the background, which the engraving captures well. Most important, it is an ancient painting (tabula antiquissima), today still one of the oldest known examples of panel painting in England, and hence an important exhibit in the case for legitimate British antiquities.
Part of the task of interpreting this plate is to reconcile the antiquarian interest of the picture, as “the earliest known portrait of an English monarch” with its intrinsic aesthetic appeal ("Richard II"). Vertue’s engraving uses careful shading to achieve in black-and-white a surprising degree of the visual interest highlighted in the same modern description: “the vivid colours show the king in a green tunic decorated with the letter R, wearing a crimson robe lined with ermine, an ermine cape, vermilion socks and gold shoes” (“Richard II”). Richard is shown seated in the so-called Coronation Chair built by Edward I, which has been used for every English monarch’s coronation since that time. In keeping with Richard’s reputation for show, this portrait consolidates into the pictorial space many of the material symbols of royal power. As suggested by Joseph Ayloffe’s (1708-1781) research in the muniment room of Westminster a few decades later, the antiquaries had an abiding interest in archival material and probably were aware of the documents that verify Richard’s particular generosity toward the abbey. He also supplied £20 to the Abbey to pay the artist (still unidentified) for this and another work (Lethaby 1934, 221).
The engraving produces a king who conforms more closely than the original portrait to a historiographic tendency established during Richard’s lifetime by the poet John Gower, who called him “the most beautiful of kings” and “the flower of boys” (quoted in Saul 1997, 452). Laurence Echard, whose History of England was published the same year as this engraving, similarly refers to Richard as “the most amiable and handsom” prince, “as to his person,” since the Norman Conquest, while also lamenting that he obtained “the most absolute power”—a more familiar aspect of Richard’s legacy (1718, 413). Saul also touches on Richard’s appearance, and concern with his appearance, when he notes that “no English king before Henry VIII devoted so much attention to the portrayal of himself” (1997, 460).
The writings of Ayloffe, an important contributor to Vetusta Monumenta and Archaeologia in the 1770s, suggest another, possibly more substantive reason why the antiquaries might have focused on this splendid and very early example of English painting. Ayloffe was one of several antiquaries who sought to establish the legitimacy of British antiquities—both the importance of artifacts themselves and the seriousness of the field of study. The long tradition of fine art painting implied by this portrait of Richard would have provided support for this cause. In a paper originally read before the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) in 1770, Ayloffe argues that “ancient paintings” not only attest to the high artistic standards of early modern England but also provide invaluable non-verbal evidence of cultural practices in earlier periods (1775, 189). Ayloffe’s advocacy led the SAL to initiate a separate series of historical prints in the 1770s, including a monumental engraving of the work singled out by Ayloffe in this article, a 1520 painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in Windsor Castle. His account of medieval paintings in Westminster Abbey appears in a later number of Vetusta Monumenta (Ayloffe 1780). Though Ayloffe does not mention the portrait of Richard II specifically, this 1718 engraving anticipates the SAL’s later emphasis on early modern paintings as grand historical records.
The twentieth-century attempt to use this painting to found an “English school” provides an analogy that may help to clarify the motivations behind this engraving. According to Harris, “[o]ver the course of almost three decades in the early twentieth century . . . two paintings, the Wilton Diptychand the Westminster portrait of Richard II, were successively attributed and de-attributed to Beauneveu” (2007, 182). In Harris's view, these attributions constituted “an attempt on the part of English historians to acquire in Beauneveu an author for two iconic works central to the early history of English art” or to “conscript” him “as the founder of English Painting”—despite the lack of any other surviving paintings to support the attribution (183). The antiquaries were less concerned with attribution—the caption here does not mention it—but they placed a similarly high value on the painting itself.
Preservation in the modern sense is not likely to have been a primary motive behind this plate, but in the wake of an ill-advised restoration in 1866, it turns out to have significant documentary value. As confirmed by a mid-nineteenth-century photograph, the ornamental ground of the painting was part of the original composition. In Lethaby’s words, “it was painted on a diapered gilt ground and had a crown, globe, and scepter of raised gesso work” (1934, 220). This raised design was scraped off in the 1866 restoration due to a mistaken belief that the design was added in the Tudor period.
Ayloffe, Joseph. 1775. “An Historical Description of an Ancient Picture in Windsor Castle.” Archaeologia 3: 185-229.
------. 1780. “An Account of Some Ancient Monuments in Westminster Abbey.” Vetusta Monumenta 2: 1-15, following Plate 2.35.
Echard, Laurence. 1718. The History of England. Vol. 1. London: Jacob Tonson.
Harris, Jim. 2007. “(Re-)making Beauneveu: The Construction of a ‘Great Artist.’” In No Equal in Any Land: André Beauneveu, edited by Susie Nash, 178-89. London: Paul Holberton.
Lethaby, W. R. 1934. “The Westminster Portrait of Richard II.” Burlington Magazine 65: 220-22.
Saul, Nigel. 1997. Richard II. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.
“Richard II and Anne of Bohemia, Portrait.” westminster-abbey.org. https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/royals/richard-ii-and-anne-of-bohemia