Charles looks out at passers-by who only pause, “how strange,” before moving on. It isn’t Charles’ fault. He was painted that way. Of all the commemorative delftware plates on all the museum shelves all the world over, this is one of those select few bizarre portraits with eyes blatantly, even intentionally, off kilter.
King Charles II of England wasn’t the only one to get this strange eye treatment. It is occasionally found on delftware plates depicting all the last Stuart monarchs from Charles II, to James II, to Mary, and finally Anne, along with the first Hanoverian King George I just after her. But, curiously, no other gentry portrait plates, nor royalty images on forms other than plates, include such odd eyes. Books and magazines are silent about this ‘royal treatment.’ This is a job for the experts.
A museum curator explained most of these plates originated in Holland, where Mary and her Dutch co-Regent William of Orange were quite popular. A collector counter-claimed that most, if not all, of these plates came from Bristol. But why the eyes? Another curator mused, “Were the potters trying to ‘show perspective’ by slanting the eyes?” Even the experts admit being flummoxed.
Worried that my query might fizzle out into suggestions and ‘what-if’s,’ I turned to that ultimate arbiter of wisdom – Facebook:
“I was reading just yesterday about Mary’s death, and then William’s, and then about Anne’s succession, and her sad life losing 16 children…I think that Mary was unkind to Anne. I get the feeling this potter did not like Mary,” posted a fellow interlocutor.
Maybe the potter didn’t like Mary (Mary certainly didn’t like her sister Anne). And maybe other potters didn’t like Charles (the puritans didn’t), or James (not many people at all liked James), or Anne (an important patron of the arts who struggled to be liked), or George (who, being a king of a whole new line, had his own share of troubles).
Are we left clinging to the slippery slope of 17th and 18th century English royalty popularity contests? Or do we just admit the limits of worn out cliches when studying human nature.
I look at Charles, and Charles looks back. The potter who painted him remains opaque. I continue looking…
Queen Anne, Patroness of Arts. James Anderson Wynn. Oxford University Press/London. 2014.
Delftware at Historic Deerfield, 1600 – 1800. Amanda Lange. Historic Deerfield Inc./Deerfield MA. 2001.
English Delftware. F. H. Garner. Faber and Faber/London. 1972.