With the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s son recently, it presents an excellent opportunity to highlight some of the royal babies and children featured in the current exhibition Tudors to Windsors.
The representation of babies and children has been critical in the portraiture of the royal family over the last 500 years and is a device often used to demonstrate the strength and longevity of a particular royal dynasty. It has also been an important way of highlighting the humanity of the royal family and creating a connection between the monarchy and their subjects since we all ultimately experience the same gamut of emotions that are a result of everyday family life. The works of art and objects representing the youngest British royals are undoubtedly some of the most evocative in the exhibition – Edward VI’s tragically short life is represented in two sixteenth century portraits and a suit of armour, worn when he was just a boy aged 12. Crowned at age nine, Edward’s reign was cut short when he died just seven years later. His beautifully-constructed armour demonstrates the power of the British king but also the enormous responsibility placed on the shoulders of young boy.
One of the more unusual representations of a royal baby is Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland and her son Charles FitzRoy. A household name in her day, Barbara Villiers was mistress to King Charles II for the first decade of his reign. She bore six children, five of whom he acknowledged as his own. Famous for her beauty, she was despised by many for her lifestyle, and came to symbolise the excess and promiscuity of the Restoration court. In this painting Lely, the leading portrait painter of the day has depicted Villiers and her child as the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The irony of depicting the notorious mistress of the king in this way must have been noted by contemporary viewers.
With the advent of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, portraits became much more accessible to everyday people and some of the most popular depictions of the royal family feature babies and young children photographs of Queen Victoria and her children and grandchildren. The most popular carte-de-visite ever made in England was the 1871 photograph of Princess Alexandra (future Queen Alexandra) and her daughter Princess Louise of which there were some 300,000 copies sold!
The exhibition includes many more delightful portraits of royal children and especially those of our current monarch Queen Elizabeth II, of particular note is the photograph of a young Princess Elizabeth holding her pet corgi Dookie, just one of the many corgis the queen has kept throughout her lifetime.
Tudors to Windors is a ticketed exhibition and is open daily 10am to 5pm.