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Sunday, 6 January 2013

Exhibition Review: The Lost Prince at the National Portrait Gallery

The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart does pretty much what is says on the tin: tells the story of the (very brief) life of Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594-1612) through portraits of himself, his family and his court. If you are like me and have only a very shaky grasp on this era in British history, Henry Stuart is not in fact one of the princes in the tower, but the son of King James I, successor to Elizabeth I. 



I can't say it's the most inventive exhibition I've ever seen, but what is really so wrong with a few rooms of impressive paintings? The larger than life scenes of early 17th century royalty are beautifully conserved in all their regal glory. I find the people quite sad looking, all pale and fragile but that’s historical context for you. 

What really shines about this exhibition is not so much the portraiture but the objects which are shown alongside them. The exhibition includes a copy book by the young Prince himself showing him improving his handwriting, complete with disparaging notes in Latin by Henry’s tutor commenting on his childish script (which looked just fine to me). The Royal Armouries have lent two ornate suits of armour worn by the young Prince. They stand barely 5 feet tall, and somehow really humanize Prince Henry who suddenly seems less like the larger than life figure in his portraits, and more like a little boy playing at king.

Undoubtably my two favourite objects are located in the last room which explore Prince Henry’s early death at 18. One is a wooden effigy of the Prince which would have been laid out for mourners after the body was buried. Although it originally included luxurious robes and life-like wax hands and a head, now all that remains are some roughly-human shaped blocks of wood. Amazing how such basic material can be embedded with such meaning so as to become the body of dead child. It’s dilapidated state makes it even more haunting, displayed in a perspex case/coffin. 

You probably could have guessed that the highlight of the exhibition for me was the autopsy notes made after Prince Henry’s death. When such a seemingly healthy young man dies so suddenly, its no supririse that his personal physician was the one to blame, some even going so far as to suggest he was poisoned by his own doctor. The autopsy report is written in English so any curious visitor with an eye for 17th century script can read for themselves about the clear liquid found in the Prince’s brain, or the blackened state of his lungs. The details provided by the doctor’s notes and the autopsy report have allowed modern doctors to diagnose the Prince with typhoid fever.

Overall, it’s a very enjoyable if old fashioned exhibition. If you are a fan of British dynastic history, then get down to the National Portrait Gallery quickly before the exhibition closes on the 13th of January!

The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 13th of January. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/the-lost-prince-the-life-and-death-of-henry-stuart/exhibition.php

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