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Richard III: A Portrait Coming Home

Cara Lee visits the 'Richard III: Coming Home' exhibition, exploring his life and the legacy he left on York.

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Image Credit: Cara Lee

It’s not often a King visits York, so, when one does, you have to make the most of it. This particular royal visit takes the form of the most renowned painting of Richard III, painted by an unknown artist: pivotal in informing almost the entirety of our modern views of Richard’s appearance and kingship.

As part of a rolling project with the National Portrait Gallery, the Yorkshire Museum, situated in York’s Museum Gardens, is hosting an exhibition celebrating the legacy of Richard III and his importance to York.  On display until 31 October 2021, the exhibition explores representations of Richard and his life, as well as related artefacts, such as the Middleham Jewel, possibly owned by Richard III or his family, the Ryther Hoard, and the Stillingfleet Boar Badge — thousands of which were made for the King’s supporters in 1483, but very few have ever been found.

Richard III plays an integral role in the history of York: born in 1452, into the House of York, he was only three years old when the War of the Roses began. The War, spanning almost 30 years and spawning the annual sport competition between the Universities of York and Lancaster that we know today, lasted almost all of Richard’s life.

In 1461, the Yorkists and Lancastrians battled at Towton (approximately 13 miles from York), with the Yorkists gaining victory. As a result, Richard’s older brother became King Edward IV and, aged just eight, Richard became a Duke.

22 years later, Richard took power after his brother’s death, so he called upon York for support for two reasons. Firstly, it was for strategic gain, but more importantly, it was also out of affection for the city. He gained support in York which helped him secure the throne, returning to the city to celebrate as King in August 1483.

As a reward for supporting him, Richard cut York’s taxes and protected its fortunes, and planned to transform the city through ambitious building projects, although these were mostly cut short by his death.

Richard III was one of history’s most contentious kings, with rumours constantly circulating about his appearance. Scoliosis curved his spine: some thought this was unacceptable for a king and queried his suitability for the role, whereas others believed it was a fabrication, used to undermine him and, later, justify the new Tudor regime. It wasn’t until 2012, when his skeleton was found underneath a car park in Leicester, that it was confirmed he suffered from scoliosis.

The Museum points out that in fact Richard III’s subjects, the public, wouldn’t have definitively known what he looked like – artistic representations and portraits were new, saved almost exclusively for royalty, and not very well circulated. This thought hadn’t even crossed my mind: in an age where images can be found at the tap of a screen, it seems beyond belief that few people would have had a knowledge and recognition of their ruler’s appearance. The only real image of the King available in day-to-day life was on the side of coins, although this wasn’t even an exact representation, more a standardised picture of what a king should look like.

On top of this, Richard III is deemed most likely to have killed the two princes locked and murdered in the Tower of London. Prince Edward V and his brother Richard Duke of York were before Richard III (then Richard of Gloucester) in succession to the throne. Whether Richard requested them to be killed is still unknown. However, many of Richard III’s followers remained loyal, particularly after his death, and York thus became the centre of violent rebellions against the new Tudor King, Henry VII.

All known paintings of Richard III were completed after his death in 1485, although experts believe that the work now on display at the Yorkshire Museum was painted using a lost portrait produced during the king’s lifetime. Its luxurious colours and Richard’s outfit suggests that it was painted as part of a set, very likely intended for display in the home of a noble family.

The Coming Home project is in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, which is sending fifty portraits to museums and galleries where the subjects are closely associated. In the past, this has included a portrait of David Hockney being displayed at the Cartwright Hall in Bradford, Stormzy in the Museum of Croydon, and Virginia Woolf to Charleston in Lewes, the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, former members of the Bloomsbury Group along with Woolf.

As well as the Coming Home exhibition, the Yorkshire Museum has a range of other displays, such as Yorkshire’s Jurassic World, Medieval York, and Roman York. Even if history isn’t your strong suit, finding out how York has been used and developed over the centuries is fascinating. Plus, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to forget how historic York is – y’know, walking under 13th century walls becomes commonplace before long – so a visit to the Yorkshire Museum allows you to re-engage with how wonderful (and old!) the city of York is.

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