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James I and VI

This painting encapsulates the history of Dulwich Picture Gallery from its earliest incarnation. Derived from a royally approved full-length portrait by the Flemish artist John de Critz the elder (c.1551-1642), this image of King James I of England and VI of Scotland (1566-1625), formed part of the original bequest of 1626 that laid the foundations of what would later become the Dulwich Picture Gallery collection. Although slightly rudimentary in its execution, the artist has still retained the reticent, almost apologetic, glance of the king from beneath a heavy black hat, adorned with the so-called ‘Great Feather’ jewel that James commissioned for himself. The delicately rendered lace collar is more elaborate than that shown in the official full-length portrait, a version of which (DPG548) came into the Gallery’s collection in 1898. The awkward crop that cuts through the edge of the collar on the right could be explained by the original purpose of the image. The painting is thought to form the final piece in a set of portraits of English kings and queens ranging from King William I (d.1087) to James I, the largest of such sets to have survived. The images were all a matching size, and that of James I may have been cut along the top and right-hand edges to conform to the standard format.

The set was commissioned by Edward Alleyn (1566–1626), an Elizabethan actor, partner in various theatrical enterprises and sole owner of several playhouses, all of which contributed to his personal fortune. He bought a large amount of land in Dulwich and in 1619 was granted the royal letters patent from King James I to establish a school there, The College of God’s Gift, later Dulwich College, to educate ‘twelve poor scholars’. The portrait set of monarchs would have been used for teaching purposes. This painting of King James I was one of the first that Alleyn commissioned and is of better quality than the other monarchs, as befitted the King under whom Alleyn held minor court office. Being formulaic and perfunctory in their style, these are amongst the paintings that the British antiquary Horace Walpole (1717–97) saw in a visit to the College and disparagingly described as ‘a hundred mouldy portraits among apostles sibyls and kings of England.’ While the collection was expanded by the Cartwright bequest in 1686 and elevated by the Bourgeois bequest in 1811, it is to these paintings that Dulwich Picture Gallery can trace its beginnings.

Not currently on display

After John de Critz the elder
57.8 x 38.1 cm
Oil on oak panel
Probably Alleyn Bequest, 1626
Accession number