Richard III, arch-topped portrait, c. 1510–40


The arch-topped portrait, held by the Society of Antiquaries, is thought to be the earliest surviving painting of King Richard III that was made from a prototype painted during his reign (1483–85). Examination of the wood panel the portrait was painted on suggests the work was probably created between 1510 and 1540. The painting was restored by conservators at the Society of Antiquaries in 2007 by general cleaning and removal of some overpainting so that the image we see here is as close to the original as possible.

Finding a true likeness of Richard III is difficult as his portrayal in art – as in literature and history – has been muddied by propaganda. His Tudor successors, from Henry VII onwards, had a vested interest in portraying Richard III as a bad King to increase their own legitimacy as the line who deposed him. In art, this was done with visual signs based on social values of the time, some of which we would now find prejudicial and offensive. There are external signs, as in a portrait where Richard holds a broken sword symbolising his defeat and failed monarchy; signs of personality in his features, such as painting him with a mean or severe facial expression (some of the overpainting on the mouth of this portrait subtly changed Richard’s expression in just this way); and signs written in to the characteristics of his body, which is often presented with exaggerated physical impairments to his hand and shoulder, and a dark complexion and hair and eye colour. In the 15th and 16th centuries, darker features and physical impairments were sometimes read as outward signs of inward moral failings.

This portrait, now that it has been restored, seems to lack those distortions. There is a slight unevenness to Richard’s shoulders (he had scoliosis and this would have been a likely effect), but not exaggeratedly so, and his facial expression is suitably regal. DNA analysis of Richard’s remains – discovered in 2012 under a car park in Leicester – suggests that he is likely to have had blue eyes and to have been born with blonde hair (although this may have darkened as he got older); this portrait matches that colouring. Dr Turi King of the University of Leicester (who led the team sequencing Richard III’s DNA) believes the arch-topped portrait to be the one that probably gives the truest likeness of the last Plantagenet King.

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Richard III
c. 1510–40
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© Richard III, c.1510-40 (oil on panel), English School, (16th century) / Society of Antiquaries of London, UK / Bridgeman Images

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