Friday, 4 April 2014

Robert Peake & Charles I

Robert Peake the Elder is a fascinating painter who worked during the transition of Tudor and Jacobean reigns. He was born in Lincolnshire in or around 1551 and was trained as a gold smith. He later moved to portrait painting and by the 1580s was a portraitist in demand. By 1604, one year after the death of Elizabeth I, he was appointed the official ‘picture maker’ to Prince Henry, the royal heir. In 1607 he was made Serjeant-Painter to the King, sharing the job with John de Critz. Serjeant-Painters were not only responsible for official court portraits but also banners, coat of arms, and stage scenery. Peake died in 1619, the same year as his fellow painter Nicholas Hilliard, William Larkin and their patron Queen Anne.

Peake very much worked in the ‘Elizabethan’ tradition like his contemporary Hilliard. His paintings are inspired by the miniature style of Hilliard and Oliver. Portraits were colourful, flat, and full of detail. The rich and long tradition of heraldry, part of Peake’s life and training, influenced the work of Peake considerably. In heraldic pictures meaningful colour combinations and imagery played a vital role, providing the viewer with an intellectual game of recognition and riddles. Perspective and illusionistic depth did not play a part in heraldic pictures. Robert Peake came from this tradition of painting where pattern, colour and outline were vital and his pictures are very ‘flat’ compared to the continental Renaissance works where chiaroscuro and perspective swept Europe’s art lovers off their feet.
Frontispiece of Peake’s publication of Serlio’s first Books on Architecture

Peake was interested in perspective however, as he was good friends with the “Compleat Gentleman” and Renaissance man Henry Peacham. Peake also published an English translation (probably from a Dutch translation) of an architectural treatise by Sebastiano Serlio which is often considered as the introduction of the Italian Renaissance to northern Europe. The treatise explains perspective extensively, but Peake’s tepid inplementation of this concept in his works suggests he was perhaps not ready to understand the idea. His later paintings show an awkward (but attractive) tension between the flat surface of a painting and some illustionistic depth (often looking more like stage scenery). His Serlio edition did, however, open the door towards a greater appreciation of continental ideas such as perspective and illusionism in England.

Peake painted his patron Prince Henry regularly during the prince’s short life. Henry died aged 18 of typhoid fever in 1612. His younger brother Charles would later become King Charles I. I have recently seen an interesting painting of a very young Charles, which is attributed to Peake. It hangs at the Bristol Museum (which has recently re-hung part of their old masters collection and now can boast of a splendid room of treasures).
Robert Peake the Elder (Studio of?), Charles I when still Duke of York
1605. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Detail 

faded lace

The relative modest Bristol portrait of the little brother of the royal heir has suffered a bit. The silver braids have turned a greyish black and the red skirt has faded. The lace has disappeared here and there. The painting, although attributed to Peake, might perhaps well be ‘studio of’ Peake as I find the skirt, lace and drapery of much less quality than the, no doubt painted by Peake himself, face of the child. Charles is probably aged around 5 in this painting which was painted around 1605. In paintings of other royals by Peake I can see much greater skill in drapery that is totally lacking here. But just because it is slightly awkward and damaged, it is so very charming. The face is a (probably faded) translucent pale colour, and we see the so typical googly eyes and red lips popular at the time. It is a sweet little painting, a far cry from the confident and lush drapery in the portraits of his older brother which we see at the National Portrait Gallery. This confidence and skill we also see in the Scottish portrait of Charles, painted in 1610. Perhaps this one was completely painted by the master himself and not by his studio assistants.

Robert Peake the Elder, Charles I, 1610. National Galleries of Scotland
Robert Peake the Elder, Charles I, 1613.
Old Schools, University of Cambridge.
Some other portraits from Peake’s studio that depict the very young Charles are known. There are a couple in Cambridge, painted to commemorate his visit to the city in 1613, just after the death of Henry, so he was now painted as a royal heir. The Old Schools portraits is rather grand indeed! The St. John’s College portrait again looks slightly more simple and restrained, like the Bristol portrait. Not having seen the real painting I suspect it is in need of restoration but nevertheless the lack of colour and missing overload of textures is intriguing. Not an awful lot is known about the circumstances of these early portraits. But they are charming, some are a tad awkward, others more refined and detailed. All share the faded pale white face of a young boy with a very high forehead, dark round eyes and a look, well a look....
Robert Peake the Elder, Charles, Duke of York
date unknown, St. John’s College, University of Cambridge.
Just remember the man he became and the faith he suffered....and then look at the child.

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