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Panel Painting Richard III (broken sword)

Object number
Unknown artist
Production date
16th century
Oil Paint
Oil on panel
Height: 485mm
Width: 355mm
Height (of frame): 640mm
Width (of frame): 512mm
Burlington House - (on display)
    The panel is made up of two thin boards; tree-ring analysis of the left-hand board shows that it came from an oak tree felled in the eastern Baltic region after 1515. It is likely that the board was prepared at some point between 1523 and 1555 and painted soon after preparation.

    In this posthumous portrait, Richard III (r. 1483-5) wears a red gown with sleeves slashed to reveal a yellow shirt, suggesting woven gilded silk. His sleeveless brown jerkin is an addition to the original composition. A number of changes to the original composition were revealed during conservation work. A disproportionately large and raised left shoulder (only openly ascribed to him after his death) has always been visible, and the physical deformity was even more conspicuous when the background was paler. The underdrawing also shows a short and misshapen left arm running almost straight from shoulder to enlarged cuff. Clearly the original intention was to portray Richard as the disfigured and defeated usurper of Tudor propaganda, but the jerkin was added later to conceal the undersized arm and misshapen shoulder in an attempt to present a more favourable image.

    The weapon that Richard holds against his left shoulder is doubtless intended to represent a sword of state - a symbol of royal authority with almost as much significance as the crown. The broken blade in the Society’s panel no doubt signifies the king’s personal defeat at the Battle of Bosworth and the subjugation of the royal house of York. Richard is shown with a symbolic broken sceptre in several sixteenth-century engravings, the earliest of which occurs in the chronicle published by John Rastell in 1529, broadly contemporary with the Society’s painting.

    When the above mentioned alterations to the portrait occurred is a matter of considerable historical interest. They are the pictorial equivalent of the attempts made by successive writers, before and after Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts (1768), to represent the vilified king in a more positive light. Thomas Kerrich greatly admired Walpole, his older contemporary and social superior in late eighteenth-century north Norfolk, for his antiquarian and artistic interests. Kerrich, who bought the panel fifteen years after the publication of Walpole’s defence, was also a skilled artist. Suspicion inevitably falls on him, but this cannot be justified. Kerrich was scrupulous in recording his own, normally discrete, repairs to ancient panels (invariably simple structural repairs and minor retouchings). In describing the picture, he observed that it was ‘a good deal damaged, but not at all repainted, at least in the face’. He made no mention of the king’s brown fur jerkin and gave an unambiguous account of Richard’s broken sword, as the unequivocal symbol of the king’s downfall, in the kind of detail that might have been avoided by someone intent on restoring Richard’s reputation.

    To Albert Way, publishing in 1847, Richard’s sword was broken. In 1862, George Scharf declared the sword to be covered with a black scabbard. He reaffirmed this in his catalogue of the collection, published two years later, asserting that, although the silver shaft of the sword gave the appearance of being broken, it in fact terminated in a black tip. Scharf’s catalogue entry also includes the first reference to Richard’s brown fur jerkin. All the indications are that the alterations took place after Kerrich’s time, at some point after the publication of Albert Way’s catalogue in 1847 and before George Scharf presented the portrait at a meeting of the Society in 1862. These changes were probably restricted to Richard’s garments and left hand, however, as there is no clear evidence that the sword was ever repainted; the deteriorating condition of the painting may well have led Scharf to misread the broken sword as complete.