This fascinating exhibition throws light on one of those forgotten lives, a young man the writers of historical fiction have passed over, and who barely makes the history books either. Henry Stuart, the eldest son of James 1 of England and V1 of Scotland, was important for a little while but like many first born princes he did not live to inherit his father’s throne which went to his brother Charles. Whether things would have been different for the Stuart dynasty had the young Prince of Wales lived is anybody’s guess. But they might well have been because he was ardently Protestant, militaristic and delighted in the splendour of the courtly life.
He was 18 when he died of typhoid fever and had shown himself to be a keen collector and patron of the arts who enjoyed fine clothes. a youth on whom great hopes rested because the security of the Stuarts on the throne of England depended on how easily it would pass to James’s heir and how that heir was seen by his subjects. Henry was considered a fine young chap, he was interested in the navy, in the New World – he sponsored an expedition to Virginia – and the English ruling class had high hopes that he would make a good king. The exhibition, which contains pictures of him out hunting, riding with friends, suits of magnificent armour made for him. designs for a masque by Inigo Jones -he loved to take part in them – and a portrait of his hearse. His funeral was an occasion for national mourning and was grander than that of Elizabeth 1 which says it all really. The elite and the nation celebrated her passing, but the Tudors were history. The Stuarts were the future and here was the future dead. His brother, Charles, was not held in the same esteem.
There are portraits of his parents, of his tutors, of the young men who were picked to be his friends and who made surrogate visits to the Continent on his behalf. The portraits – he was lucky in his painters, especially Robert Peake who broke with the traditional style of royal portraits. The results set the young man in a far more realistic context than had been the style in the past. The exhibition has books that belonged to him, and most bizarre of all the lifesize wooden frame used on his hearse to similate his body. The lavish cloths have long since disappeared as has the wax head and shoulders. But the damaged wooden frame survived. The exhibition is beautifully laid out, and by one of those happy accidents – perhaps – as you approach this world where the court painters made the best of their sitters you pass the exhition of photographs by Mario Testini of the current royals, glamorous, unreal, untouchable. It is a terrific show which tells us a lot about Henry and places him firmly in the context of his times