Tudors to Windsors: 500 Years of British Royal Portraits

Exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  Open 28th May to 31st October 2021.

Written by Melanie V. Taylor for TudorsDynasty.com

On Tuesday 25th May I got on a train to London for the first time in a year.  Suitably masked I was heading off to my favourite London museum for a preview of the Tudors to Windsors exhibition being held in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. For those who have never visited this museum, it is part of the Royal Museums Greenwich which are on the site of the palace where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born.  Today the whole park has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and now contains not only the National Maritime museum, but also the old Royal Naval College, the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark and the Queen’s House.  The surrounding park was where the Olympic equestrian events were held in 2012.  

It is easy to get to Greenwich either by train or, if you want to imagine you are on a royal barge  you can catch a Thames Clipper and travel down the river alighting just where the Tudor kings and queens would have done in the 16th century.  

The museum has exceptionally good facilities for everyone and their attention to accessibility, with all the restrictions imposed by Covid regulations, is second to none. In addition, for the adults who are wheelchair bound this is the first museum to have an adult changing room.  

The café near the temporary exhibition space has a light lunch menu for adults as well as a children’s menu, all of which can be ordered using the QR system.  I could not resist their carrot cake.  There is lots of outside seating covered with large umbrellas, as well as inside – all suitably socially distanced.  

However, on to the exhibition, which is why I was there in the first place! 

Opening to the public on 28th May just in time for the Bank Holiday, this is the final stop of the flagship international touring exhibition of London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG).  The NPG is currently undergoing a multi-million refurbishment and is closed until 2023. The temporary exhibition space is set in the basement of the National Maritime Museum and is easily accessible by stairs or lift.  Since it was the press preview, I was especially privileged to have the exhibition all to myself.  

Image 1: King Henry VII by Unknown Netherlandish artist 1505, oil on panel ©National Portrait Gallery, London

I was face to face with Henry VII, a portrait [Image 1] I know well from my many visits to the National Portrait Gallery. Being alone with this man was as if we had met in person for the first time.  The placing of the oldest royal portrait in the NPG’s collection is as if the first Tudor king is personally inviting you into the exhibition . 

A massive glass display case is next and houses two 19th century bronze busts of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York based on the 16th century bronzes on their tombs in Westminster Abbey.  No longer restricted by the trappings of death, these two figures are §introduced as the parents of the Tudor dynasty.

Image 2: King Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist circa 1520, oil on panel ©National Portrait Gallery, London

We can compare and contrast the young athletic Henry VIII [Image 2] with the National Maritime Museum’s portrait of the older, more corpulent version that is not so well known [Image 3].  This latter portrait is from the studio of Hans Holbein the Younger.  Thus we have the two faces of Henry VIII.  The younger version is displayed next to a portrait of Katharine of Aragon, and these may well have formed a pair as they were both painted c1520.  The NPG’s later miniature of Queen Katharine, attributed to Lucas Horenbout and only 38 mm (approx. 1½ inches) in diameter, gives us a more relaxed, but very dour, presentation of Henry’s first wife.

Image 3: Henry VIII, studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century oil on panel © National Maritime Museum, London

In my recent article on Tudor portraiture on Tudor Royals in Portraiture I discussed various portraits exhibited at an 1890 exhibition of portraits of the Royal House of Tudor, which included several purporting to be of Anne Boleyn. [Image 4] This may well be one of those paintings.  Many years and much research has now been undertaken on the 16th century images of Anne and none of them are considered to be ad vivum but copies of lost originals.  All I can say is thank you to those copyists who lived in the latter part of the 16th century.

Image 4: Anne Boleyn by Unknown English artist late 16th century based on a work of c 1533-1536, oil on panel ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Henry VIII’s longed for legitimate male heir, Prince Edward, is depicted in a panel right next to a set of armour made for him in about 1550.  The articulated cuirass would have allowed more movement than a solid one, but it was not the development of armour technology that struck me.  It was the diminutive size of the whole suit.  The thirteen year old King Edward could only have been about four feet ten inches at the most!  

Mary, and her husband Philip II of Spain, appear in a pair of identical rectangular panels only 102 x 77 x 10 mm (4 x 3 x .4 inches).  

Image 5: Queen Elizabeth I (the Ditchley portrait) by Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger, c 1592 oil on canvas ©National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth I (my personal favourite of Henry VIII’s children) stands regally attired in white in Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger’s massive portrait known as The Ditchley Portrait (c1592) [Image 5].  Unfortunately at some time in the past someone has cut several inches off the right hand side, presumably to get the picture into its current frame.  In doing so, they have sliced off the ends of the lines of the dedication written in the plaque. Up to now we meet the Tudors face to face. Elizabeth is elevated and we raise our heads to acknowledge her magnificence.

Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, is seen dressed in a very smart russet fabric, but his expression is very mournful.  The date is c1575, and I felt as if he had finally come to the terrible realisation that he would never be able to marry Elizabeth and therefore there would never be a Tudor/Dudley heir to the English throne.  This is a big panel, measuring 1274mm high (50 inches) and Dudley is only ¾ length.  I did wonder if he was painted life size, which would make him (taking off the gap between the top of the portrait and the frame) about five foot eight inches tall at most.

The Earl of Essex, the queen’s other favourite, also makes an appearance and he too had his portrait painted by Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger.  


An aspect of royal marketing that is often ignored is the use of medals, and there are several cabinets of these for the various dynasties.  The National Maritime Museum has a collection in various precious as well as base metals.  The lighting makes each sparkle and I wondered how often each of these priceless artifacts were polished.  The detail of each casting is very clear and it is easy to make out the design.

After the defeat of the Spanish Armada there was a medal struck described as Elizabeth I (Dangers Averted).  The example in the exhibition is a 18th century copy of the 1598 original and is in silver.  A circular gold example dated 1602 was made to celebrate the success of Elizabeth’s reign and is listed as Unknown Maker.  Since Nicholas Hilliard, the 

 limner favoured by the queen who, in the 1580s, created the Mask of Youth series focusing on Elizabeth’s fabulous jewels and clothes and not on her ageing features, was also a goldsmith, I wondered whether it was he who had designed and cast this particular 1602 medal.  There is another solid gold medal from 1545 celebrating Henry VIII’s supremacy of the Church which has been attributed to a goldsmith with the initials R H.  Hilliard’s father was called Richard, but whether this R H is a young Richard Hilliard (Nicholas’s father) at work is not told.


The next section covers the Stuarts and a miniature of Mary Queen of Scots has a small wall all to herself since she is the bridge between the Tudors and the Stuarts.  Her son James I of England and VI of Scotland is portrayed by John de Critz the Elder, probably sometime around 1606.  

The portrait of James I’s favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, by William Larkin has always got me scratching my head as to just how many people painted this life size panel.  Since the exhibition is from the NPG collection, we do not have the Rembrandt portrait of the duke, which I know is stunning.  The Larkin studio seemed to have produced a discombobulated person whose limbs do not seem to belong to the body, and the head is too small for the size of the man.  If this were the only image of George Villiers that existed, I would have to wonder what James I ever saw in him.  

Anne of Denmark was not the most beautiful of women, but her portrait looks as if she might breathe, as do the portraits of Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria and the group portrait of their five children.  

The execution of the second Stuart king is marked with a small ‘work on paper’ by an unknown artist.  Just as the execution marked the beginning of eleven years of Puritan rule, the exhibition marks this time in English history with a portrait of Cromwell and his plaster death mask.  I had never seen the death mask before and it was quite spooky confronting the man who had ordered the execution of the king.  The three dimensional element is what made it an eerie encounter, especially having considered Samuel Cooper’s remarkable miniature portrait of Cromwell that was painted “warts and all”.  Cooper’s inclusion of these facial features were apparently at Cromwell’s insistence. If we take this story as being true, then the presence of the large ‘wen’ on Cromwell’s face without any other scars is all the more remarkable since smallpox and other disfiguring diseases were all still rampant in the 17th century.

Image 6: King Charles II attributed to Thomas Hawker, c 1680, oil on canvas, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

1660 is the year Charles II was restored to the throne and Thomas Hawker’s portrait of the king, painted c 1680, [Image 6] takes us into the latter part of the 17th century.  We see a much more relaxed pose of ‘The Merry Monarch’ clothed in his official robes.  The portraits of the Stuarts show they had some very serious shoes which must have cost a fortune!  The exquisite fabrics and the amount of expensive lace worn by the royal family does smack of waste and extravagance on their part so one does begin to realise why there was a rebellion against what appeared to be prolific expenditure. 

This section contains portraits of the king’s brother, later James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, as well as the women in Charles II’s life.  

The difference between Nell Gwyn and Charles II’s aristocratic mistresses is that Nell appears to have had a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ and is painted showing her naked breasts, and her hair dishevelled.  Clearly painted for Charles’s private viewing, it is in marked contrast to the beautifully attired Barbara Palmer (née Villiers) Duchess of Cleveland and Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth.  These two portraits are wonderful, especially that of Louise, which was painted in 1682 by Peter Mignard, during a visit to Paris.  However, you will have to visit the exhibition to see it, or buy the excellent book written to accompany the exhibition.

There is a display of medals celebrating various events in the reigns of the monarchs up until the reign of Queen Anne.  These are all from the National Maritime Museum collection and either gold or silver, except one which is made from lead.

Image 7: King George III, studio of Allan Ramsay based on a work of 1761-1762, oil on canvas ©National Portrait Gallery, London

After portraits of the Stuarts we move briefly through those of Mary II, William III and Queen Anne, to the Hanoverians and the Georges, I, II and III [Image 7].  George III has reverted to a more traditional portrayal wearing his coronation robes, compared to the portrait of James II [Image 8].

Image 8 James II, by Nicolas de Largillere c1686, oil on canvas © National Maritime Museum, London

I never knew that the reprobate Prince of Wales played the cello, but we have a charming narrative showing him, together with his sisters, amusing themselves by playing music together.  It is this sort of relaxed scene that gives us insight into the lives of the Hanoverian royal family, whereas previously we have to imagine what they all did when they were not dressed in their finery for official portraits.

The Prince of Wales went on to become Regent and later George IV. His mistress, Maria Anne Fitzherbert (née Smythe) has also made it into the exhibition.  Unlike the portrait of Nell Gwyn, Mrs Fitzherbert has managed to keep her clothes on.  

The Hanoverians, like the Tudors and the Stuarts, use medals celebrating various events.  In this instance those showing William IV of 1830 and the coronation of William IV and Queen Adelaide dated 1831, are both struck in base metals, while all the others are either of gold or silver.

Image 9: Queen Victoria by Sir George Hayter, 1863, based on an original work of 1838 ©National Portrait Gallery, London

With the coronation of Queen Victorian [Image 9] we move into the Industrial Age with all the innovations and inventions that had to offer.  With the invention of photography, royal portraiture becomes more relaxed, but painting also becomes used in new ways and these are reproduced in engravings.  The family image of Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort and Family was created by a mixed method of engraving in 1853, from an original painting of 1846. 

There is a sailor suit made for the very young Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and later Edward VII.  The northern industrial powerhouse was producing cotton and textiles which were being exported all across the British Empire.  This cotton sailor suit struck me as being very similar in size to the suit of armour made for Edward VI.  While England was dominating the world, perhaps not much seems to have changed in growth rates of children since Tudor times, suggesting that diet even at the highest level of society, might not be very nutritional.  I will  have to think on that one, but perhaps someone who has already researched this subject will be able to enlighten me.

When Prince Edward was to marry, he was engaged to Princes Alexandra, daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark, and the arrival of the princess at Gravesend is commemorated in a large painting.  Considering that by 1863 it was possible to photograph outside there has to have been a reason for this semi formal painting.  I have to say I found it a bit chocolate boxy and thought how it might make a very difficult jigsaw puzzle.  

Queen Victoria embraced the technology of photography and there are several examples of carte-de-visite and various prints showing the queen photographed with various members of the family as well as her companion and gillie, John Brown.  

It was in Victoria’s reign that the modern postal service was invented with the royal profile appearing on the new way of identifying that a fee had been paid – the postage stamp.  

Edward VII’s mistress Mrs Alice Frederica Keppel, (née Edmonstone) was clearly a very glamorous woman and she, like Mrs Fitzherbert before her, remains decorously dressed.  Similarly Mrs Wallace Simpson and Edward VIII are shown in paint and photograph.


In the final section we see how the current royal family, the Windsors, embrace all the various technologies, but it is the various photographs by Lord Snowdon, Antony Armstrong Jones, Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino and others that caught my eye.  The one of the nineteen year old Prince William in white tie and tails is absolutely gorgeous (be still my beating heart!)  No wonder Katherine fell for him.

The curation of this exhibition is exceptional.  How they chose the exhibits from among the thousands of pieces in the NPG’s collection is a wonder and must have been a mammoth task in itself; let alone the problems associated with sending everything off on tour followed by the problems caused by the pandemic.  

Throughout we sense the majesty of monarchy, but without it being obvious we are shown how new technologies were embraced by the generations of royals and how they  used imagery to promote their right to rule.  The photograph on the carte de visite of Queen Victoria, her daughter Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Duchess of Argyll and John Brown shows a relaxed informal side of someone we think of as a very prim queen.  From this early  informal image of Queen Victoria, we are brought right up to the present day.  The penultimate exhibit is a very large and poignant image of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh [Image 10].  

Image 10: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; Queen Elizabeth II (‘Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh Windsor Castle, Windsor 2011) by Thomas Struth. © Thomas Struth, 2011

There are lots more intriguing images, but I shall leave you to explore the exhibition for yourselves since to describe these would spoil your fun.    

The exhibition is on until 31st October, 2021 and should not be missed if you are in London.   If you are unable to get to the National Maritime Museum for whatever reason, then you could always buy the book, Tudors to Windsors, published by the National Portrait Gallery, London, ISBN 978 1 85514 756 0.  This is more than just a catalogue; it is a major reference book for everyone interested in the British royals with many more images from the National Gallery Collection accompanied by fabulous essays by the various experts at the gallery.

If you do make it to the museum, then take the time to see the three Armada portraits of Elizabeth I in The Queen’s House that are currently on display together for the first time.  Entry to this exhibition is free, but you will have to book a slot online.

Get Notified

Social media no longer shows our posts to a majority of our followers - Don't want to miss out on new articles? Get notified! Subscribe to email updates from Tudors Dynasty.

Join 5,724 subscribers.

Guest Author Henry VIII History Kings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *