The strangest, strangest thing.
Hampton Court is full of windows. All of them leaded; glass wasn’t cheap when Wolsey attempted to build an exotic Italian palace by the Thames, but expense was no object. They define the place. You look out onto courtyards through them, peer into grace and favour apartments through them, gaze out of the Haunted Gallery and the Georgian apartments and Cardinal Wolsey’s closet through them and onto the world beyond.
If you choose the right day, Hampton Court isn’t too crowded.
It is full of the kind of paintings which really do require a lot of staring. Tudor paintings, packed with symbols and ostentatious pattern. People I have written and argued about for years. There’s Henry, and the wife he would acknowledge, and his children, and Will Somers, his fool. There’s Christina of Denmark, the one that got away, politely commenting that if she had two heads, Henry would be welcome to one of them. There’s Francis I, Henry’s olfactorily endowed rival. They’re all there; a who’s who of Tudor celebs.
And just as you are in danger of being granded out, someone stares impishly out at you from a rough wood frame.
He’s a little boy. About my son’s age, actually. And he’s observing you – yes, YOU – from behind the leading of a Hampton Court window.
He looks modern, but for the clothes he is wearing. They are unmistakably Tudor. he has one of those velvet hats and a ruff, but he could be one of the schoolchildren who has just trailed through, bemoaning to their teacher that he couldn’t get a mobile phone signal.
Doing a double take – as I always do, walking past him – I check the date. It is by an unknown artist, and painted between 1550 and 1560.
There were lots of boys at court; many of them were servants. But they were not the sort to write what they did down. This is a rare glimpse of their story, a brief moment in time. Youth encapsulated. This boy is almost 500 years old.
But it’s so very strange because it is completely un-Tudor, somehow. This is another child’s portrait. It’s little Chrysogon Dacre, whose likeness hangs in The Vyne, in Hampshire, England:
Now that’s Tudor. Stylised, corseted, formal, full of symbolism. You can read Chrysogon’s story here.
But this painting has none of the pomp, the ceremony, the stiff ostentation of a Tudor painting. We’ll never know who he is, this child; but his spirit gazes impishly immortal out of that ancient canvas, through the leading, and engages you even now.
We’ll never know who he is. But we’ll never forget him, either.