The Cycle of Kings; Sketchbook and Painting Project

At the end of January, after going to see the RSC’s Cycle of Kings at the Barbican I decided I wanted to complete a sketchbook and a large scale illustration inspired by Shakespeare’s plays Richard II, Henry IV part 1 & 2, and Henry V.

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I’ve really thrown myself into this project. After seeing the four plays performed at the Barbican – which was absolutely brilliant – I bought the BBC’s Hollow Crown box set and watched my way through that too. In the meantime I also read all the plays (or re-read in Richard II’s case) which I really enjoyed, and used them as starting point by writing down quotes that leapt out at me. More recently I visited the National and National Portrait Galleries in London to see the Wilton Diptych up close (a piece I’ve kept going back to in my sketchbook) and to look at the royal portraits and casts.

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I needed to choose which animal was going to represent each King. Richard II’s emblem was the White Hart and this is threaded through the aforementioned Wilton Diptych. The stag is shown on the back panel as well as being the badge worn by the King and the host of angels. I think the image of a Stag suits Richard – tall, slight, stately, rather decorative. And importantly, the Deer is a prey animal, something that was hunted and killed.
The choice for Henry V was obviously always going to be a lion. It was too famous an association to ignore, and it’s an image all over his flags/armour usually.
“Your brother kings and monarchs of the earth
Do all expect that you should rouse yourself,
As did the former lions of your blood.”
Henry IV was the one I had the most trouble with. He needed to be something practical, something fairly solid, but not too regal (that was my feeling anyway). In the end I chose a Bloodhound, as these were traditionally used in the hunting of stags, and had that slightly uncompromising, military aspect.

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Very early in the play, Richard II, the Duchess of Gloucester makes a passionate speech to John of Gaunt and uses the metaphor of a tree to link the royal family together.
“Edward’s seven sons, whereof thyself art one,
Were as seven vials of his sacred blood,
Or seven fair branches springing from one root”
I really liked this image – and really it’s quite pivotal to the idea of who everybody is, how they’re all related, and later the Wars of the Roses – so I tried to bring it into my ideas. There are seven tines to Richard’s antlers, and a silhouetted tree with seven branches forms the background of the illustration.

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The contrast between the three Kings was also important to me. Richard alone wears a crown. I wanted the ‘usurper’ King Henry and his son to remain bare-headed to reflect their questionable claim to the throne, their lack of ‘divine right’, and to reference the quote “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” from Henry IV part 2. Richard is also depicted holding a mirror, rather than sword or sceptre, to reflect his vanity and lack of military success, as well as his preoccupation with the idea of what makes him a King rather than an ordinary man.
“For there it is, cracked in an hundred shivers.”

The idea of contrasting levels, high and low, (mentioned a lot throughout the tetralogy) was also something I wanted to include. Richard is sitting upon the ground, partly in reference to the famous “for God’s sake let us sit upon the ground” moment, but also because of the way he refers to Bolingbroke (Henry IV) ascending as he himself is brought down, be it the metaphor of the buckets in a well, or the cares that come with the crown.
“That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs whilst you mount up on high.”
I wanted Henry IV to be sat upon the throne himself. I hoped to convey the feeling that once he’d won it, he would be loathe to ever leave it again, for fear someone would steal it away from him once more (as indeed Hotspur and his band of rebels try to do in part one). He lectures Hal about the dangers of being seen too much by the common people and I see Henry IV as a King who would shut himself up in the throne room for days at a time, very concerned that his conduct was always judged to be that of a King.

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Finally, Henry V stands upright on the field of battle, clearly a warrior as well as a King. However, a dead crow lies at his feet alongside the skull of a Deer. One of my favourite little moments of Henry V is when he says;
“Not today, O Lord, O not today, think not upon the fault
My Father made in compassing the crown!”
The shadow of Richard’s deposition and murder are ever-present in the plays and I tried to show that even Henry V – the ‘star of England‘ – was still haunted by death, and doubts over the validity of his claim to the throne.

There’s quite a few other little things in there but I could quite literally ramble on all day, and no one wants that, so I’ll maybe leave some parts unexplained, with an air of ambiguity (it’s nice to try and pretend to be mysterious every once in a while).

I really enjoyed working on this project and plan to do three smaller front-facing portraits to go with it, as well as finishing off what’s left of my sketchbook.

2 responses to “The Cycle of Kings; Sketchbook and Painting Project

  1. It really is wonderful and all the more so because of the explanation! I love your inclusion of the quotes- the lion is inspired.
    I didn’t really know anything about Henry IV until I read the last book in a trilogy about the War of the Roses where the battle of Bollingbrook happens and I was most intrigued to find out more so I went and read a book about the kings and queens of England. It is shocking considering I studied A’Level history that I knew so little about British monarchs. Most of our studies were based on International relations in Europe, the Unification of Germany, origins of WW1 etc!

    • Yes, they never really go into Kings/Queens when they teach history and that’s one of my favourite things to find out about. The fight for the throne has always been so complicated and full of amazing characters.

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