The Boy Behind the Window

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


35 thoughts on “The Boy Behind the Window

      1. Yes, it is. It’s wonderful how an image like that spans centuries — even though the artist of the past is long gone, the image still conveys something to us in the future.

  1. I’ve rarely seen the like before. It’s part of several portrait traditions: the trompe-l’oeil painting where details suggest the image might have some three-dimensional basis; the frank portrait, where the sitter looks directly at the viewer; and the anonymous subject where, unlike commissioned portraits, we appear to know exactly zilch about the person we’re looking at. The artist clearly had a sense of humour, and this just has a sense of complete joie de vivre on the part of the painter as well as the sitter (who doesn’t look as if he would have sat for very long).

    Thanks for sharing this, Kate — it deserves to be better known — especially as the reflective surface of the protective glass adds another dimension with mullioned Hampton Court windows and a hint of the observer also in the picture.

    1. Ha! I love your observation about the length of time this sitter would have sat, Chris. And you are the first to mention the reflections. It is impossible to take a photograph of this without the reflections from opposite playing on this picture. And doesn’t it work wonderfully.

  2. Who painted it, did you say and i missed it? This is an amazing trangression. A radical portrait. And brilliant. the artist must have used a brush with two or three horse hairs.. the work is so fine.. wow.. next time i come to out I must go to hampton court. How awful that all the time I lived in london and its surrounds i never went to any of these places, I pretty much just slept and walked on my days off.. sigh.. if only i had been blogging then.. c

  3. There is indeed quite a mischievous glint in the lad’s eyes, and I’m thinking like Wanderlust that the subject was indeed familiar with the artist. This is a very cool painting that in a way transcends time, Kate.

  4. You tell a story very well, setting the scene so we can picture it so vividly in our minds. I’m a new follower but I’m happy to be on board as I love the artwork you share and the stories you tell.

  5. This is marvelous!
    I agree with Three Well Beings – the charming, impish grin is the best thing about this painting.

    I can’t believe it’s from that period!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s