This large, ambitious drawing was made by William Kent in 1729 in preparation for an important canvas commissioned by Queen Caroline, wife of George II. The finished painting, preserved in the Royal Collection, was one of three scenes from the life of King Henry V Kent executed, and for which he was paid the substantial sum of £166.10s. The present preparatory drawing is the only one to survive for the project and it is Kent’s largest and most fully developed drawing not related to an architectural scheme. Executed in black chalk, strengthened with ink and white heightening on buff coloured paper, the drawing demonstrates Kent’s remarkable ability as a painter, specifically a history painter at the height of his career.
Kent initially trained as a painter. He travelled to Italy in 1709 with John Talman and Daniel Lock. In Rome he entered the studio of Giuseppe Chiari, a successful pupil of Carlo Maratti. A group of British patrons provided Kent with a stipend of £40 a year in hope, as Burrell Massingberd wrote: ‘of your becoming a great Painter’ adding in a letter the following year: ‘I have nothing to add but to beg you’ll study & not think of comeing over donec Raphael secundis eris [until you are the second Raphael].’
In 1722 it was Kent, rather than the king’s Sergeant Painter, Sir James Thornhill, who was offered the commission to decorate the new Cupola Room at Kensington Palace. In 1729, Queen Caroline commissioned Kent to paint three scenes from the life of King Henry V. According to Caroline’s Privy Purse accounts, he was paid a total of £166.10s. The present drawing is the only preparatory drawing for the project to survive and by far the most ambitious sheet Kent made for an easel painting; the drawing is only marginally smaller than the finished canvas. The drawing itself shows considerable compositional variation from the finished painting. In the drawing the figure of Henry V and Catherine of Valois are reversed, the attendant holding the king’s sceptre and crown is placed to the right of the king, rather than in between the couple as he is in the finished painting. Kent has also included the figure of King Henry VI of France, Catherine’s father, in the balcony surveying the scene, which he omitted from the final canvas. Kent originally placed two dogs in the foreground in an obvious allusion to the marriage taking place above, he reduces this to a single dog in the painting. The oil also integrates a number of other decorative features, such as the military trophies hanging on the piers, which are absent in the preparatory drawing.
These changes tell us much about Kent’s working practice. First, that he was meticulous in planning his compositions, particularly a complex multi-figural historical painting such as this, destined, as it was, for the apartments of the wife of the sovereign. Secondly, that he was a restless designer, changing elements as the project progressed. The changes in the composition may have been in response to a contemporary work. In 1728 the printseller John Bowles published ten prints illustrating The Remarkable Transactions of the Reign of Charles I. One of the plates, The Marriage of Charles I, was based on a painting by Louis Chéron. Chéron’s composition bears a number of striking compositional similarities to Kent’s design: for example, the allegorical figure holding a flaming torch, the spectator on the far left seen from behind, turning with a billowing cloak and martial figure framing the composition on the right appear in both Chéron’s print and the finished painting. Unlike Chéron’s composition, the preparatory drawing arranges the action of the marriage from left to right: priest blessing, Catherine seen front-on and then Henry seen in profile to the right. In the finished painting Kent has followed the format established by Chéron, with Henry V on the left facing Catherine on the right, suggesting he may have made the adjustments after examining Chéron’s engraving.
The rediscovery of this important sheet also raises certain questions about the iconography and purpose of the commission. The three canvases, including the other two paintings in the series, The Meeting Between Henry V and the Queen of France and the larger Battle of Agincourt, were all recorded in 1758 by Horace Walpole hanging in the Queen’s Dressing Room at St James’s Palace. As has been pointed out, Queen Caroline celebrated Henry V as a Royal hero, commissioning a further depiction of him in the form of a bust by Rysbrack. More than a hero, Henry V, or more precisely, Catherine of Valois represented an important ancestor for the house of Hanover. Catherine of Valois was commonly thought to have married Owen Tudor and that Edmund Tudor, father of Henry VII, was therefore her son. In commissioning a portrait of Catherine’s marriage to Henry V, Queen Caroline was providing an image that tacitly legitimised the Hanoverian succession presenting it as a continuation of the Plantagenet dynasty.
- Eds. Joanna Marschner, David Bindman and Lisa Ford, Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World, exh. cat. New Haven and London (Yale Center for British Art and Kensington Palace), 2017, cat. no.12.06, p224
- See Carol Blackett-Ord, ‘Letters from William Kent to Burrell Massingberd from the Continent, 1712-1719’, The Walpole Society, vol.63, 2001, p.104 and p.106.
- See Oliver Millar, The Tudor, Stuart and Early Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, London, 1963, pp.171-172, cat. no. 506.
- The scheme was the subject of two short articles: R. Raines and K. Sharpe, ‘The Story of Charles the First’, The Connoisseur, 1973, p.38-47 & 1974, p.192-195.
- For Rysbrack’s bust see Lisa Ford, ‘Using Britain’s Past’, in Eds. Joanna Marschner, David Bindman and Lisa Ford, Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte and the Shaping of the Modern World, exh. cat. New Haven and London (Yale Center for British Art and Kensington Palace), 2017, p.221.