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Focus on…: Richard’s face through the ages

Portraits have very much been a focus for the Visitor Centre during 2018 so far, with our amazing LEGO portrait build at Easter, followed by our portrait collage and colouring activity. In late May, Charlotte Bolland, Collections Curator for the 16th century collections at the National Portrait Gallery, visited the Centre to speak to a packed audience at the Visitor Centre about Plantagenet portraits.

In this blog post Luke Blaylock (who is part of the Visitor Centre team) takes a closer look at portraits of King Richard III.

Richard’s face through the ages
By Luke Blaylock

We don’t have many physical descriptions of Richard III and what there is, is vague. For many years the only image people had to refer to was what we call the ‘red portrait’ which you can see next to the entrance of the Visitor Centre.

This one has been the most used and recognised throughout history but it has some interesting characteristics that don’t seem to reflect reality. Obviously, the painters were not at the stage that they were able to draw photo-realistically during the English renaissance but this seems deliberate…

1. His eyes were sunken in his head, broody and maybe stressed, understandable for the man who was ordered to administrate half the country for 10 years then the whole of it for another two but this is far more haggard looking than the average 32-year-old man

2. The mouth has been warped on one side to a half-smile to make him look scheming

3. One shoulder has been painted over layer by layer to possibly exaggerate a hump on his back

4. Some of the fingers have been sharpened to more of a point

We now know the chin and the eye colour are right and the face shape is based on an earlier, better portrait but some of these features just don’t look right. The changes are subtle enough that glancing at the picture you might just feel a little uncomfortable but can’t tell why, unless you really examine it so you associate images of Richard with a feeling of unpleasantness.

This sort of ‘proto-Photoshop’ is part and parcel of all the elements of early Tudor propaganda, which were used to tarnish Richard III’s reputation and create a mythical monster both physical and moral who was a curse from God instead of a regular looking man who was also a king.

The modern age is a good time for Richard, probably better than any time he was alive, partly thanks to the work of the Richard III Society. One of their most famous members: John Ashdown-Hill, commissioned one of the oldest portraits of Richard III to be washed and treated, removing all the extra layers which caused a remarkable discovery. Layers of the painting had been added on later which were the same sorts of features as those in the ‘red portrait’, the blue portrait was therefore what it would look like with these additions and edits removed. What does Richard III look like with #nofilter?

Unfortunately, this process does remove some of the colour and detail the original artist put in as well, so Richard looks a bit pale and his hair seems untextured brown but the likeness between this and the red portrait is clearly based on the same image of one face, this one is just more human.

This portrait also shows a little difference in shoulder height, which matches the contemporary descriptions of Richard. It may not look pronounced in this image but when compared to the one of his elder brother (the portraits were probably made as a pair) there is a difference.

An image of the ‘blue portrait’ is on display in the upstairs galleries of our Centre and was used when Professor Caroline Wilkinson reconstructed Richard III’s face based on information from his skull. She used this image to double check the authenticity of her own result, once she had been told whose face it was she was restructuring. She said it was one of the closest matches she had ever seen.

We can never be sure if this is fully accurate – the ears are the hardest feature to get right, as there isn’t a lot information to go on – but this is the closest likeness we will ever have. Originally the wig for the reconstructed head was very dark brown, changed to a much lighter blond and since been changed again for a mousier ‘dirty blonde’ colour.

The prominent chin and deep-set eyes are the same as they are in both portraits and the face is shaped the same too so it seems even the red portrait was quite close to the truth all along.

Now that we have seen both portraits and the reality on which they were based it’s worth looking at adaptations and portrayals of Richard and how accurate they are too.

The first time Richard appeared on the silver screen was in the 1939 horror movie ‘The Tower of London’ as a sneaky killer. This adaptation is also interesting because it’s not connected to Shakespeare or More but does make Richard the baddie.

Basil Rathbone, who plays Richard, looks like he’s got noble blood and was given a lopsided stuffed doublet to match the contemporary descriptions of Richard having one shoulder higher than the other. Also, the chin sticks out nicely. This image was not effective propaganda like the red portrait because making a horror film was a bit too “on the nose”. Just over a decade later the Richard III Society saw a rapid rise in popularity and since then it has been a good time to be a Ricardian.

Adaptations in fiction and non-fiction alike are more accurate than ever with one extremely popular exception…

More like DAAAMNtagenet, am I right?

Love it or hate it The White Queen book series and TV show love to cast young, chiselled actors in the roles of historical titans and Richard is played with enigmatic charm and big doe-eyes by Aneurin Barnard. It’s by far the most in-depth screen version of the character but as accuracy to his image goes, height and build are right but no showing of scoliosis. This is a very generous portrayal of the man judging from the face we have as reference.

What I will say in closing is that the propaganda power of this sort of image is just as great as the red portrait ever was; there is no greater stronghold to contend with in this modern world than the power of fandom bolstered by crushes on out of reach actors. Just try and post something negative on tumblr with this image attached next time you feel like your confidence can take a hammering..!

And that’s our list folks. Which image do you think is most accurate? Which is most effective at sending a subconscious message? Which do you think we should have on our gift shop coasters, tote bags and mugs..!?

Let us know in the comments!



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