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The Art of Monarchy: An Audience with the Spanish Infantas

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Anna Reynolds 11:51, Friday, 9 March 2012

Editor's note: To coincide with the Art of Monarchy, the Radio 4 blog is running a series of posts by the Royal Collection's curators on different aspects of the collection. In this post Anna Reynolds considers the portrait of the Spanish Infantas - CM.

A portrait of the Spanish Infantas

Supplied by Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012

One of my favourite parts of being a curator is getting the chance to examine paintings in a way that you don't usually have the opportunity to do. Today for example, I was hoisted six metres up in the air on a single-person cherry-picker lift in order to get a face-to-face meeting with the two most famous Spanish Princesses of the sixteenth century.

The only surviving daughters of Philip II of Spain, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Michaela were born into an enormously powerful dynasty - their grandparents included the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. They were painted on two other occasions by the Spanish Court Painter Alonso Sánchez Coello. In one they are toddlers, Catalina supported by an early baby-walker on wheels. In the other they are older - and are probably represented as potential marriage prospects for the most powerful Princes across Europe. Both of those pictures are in Madrid. The Royal Collection painting I'm seeing today may be the missing link between the two.

It hangs in the Green Drawing Room, one of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, where it has been since at least 1863. It is positioned as what we call an overdoor - a painting, usually of roughly square proportions, which is typically set within an ornate panel over a door in a grand residence. Given that the doors within the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are double the height of a standard door our earlier attempt to see the picture using the tallest ladder available only meant we could see the bottom of the canvas. Hence the cherry-picker.

Which is how I came to find myself, first thing on a Monday morning, rising slowly up to meet the Spanish Infantas properly for the first time. I had looked up at them many times, although their all-seeing vantage point definitely gave them the advantage - providing them with the opportunity to watch Heads of State and members of the public pass beneath. But I knew that nothing would touch the moment when I could see them up close for the first time, and examine the details of their faces, their clothes, even their pets under a strong revealing light.

And it certainly lived up to the expectation. Although the painting is partially concealed behind a dark brown varnish, the clothes are painted with veracity and a level of detail that allows you to make out each pearl, each gold thread running through the fabric of their matching dresses. But it is the faces that stand out. Each is personalised, with a luminous subtlety, and the sisters have a knowing countenance well beyond their young age (they are probably only around six and five). Their poise for two so young partly reflects Spanish artistic convention, together with their position as heirs to their father's hugely powerful empire. But I get a sense that their demeanour and expression also have something to do with the loss of their mother at a very young age, and the strong relationship between them as a result. And despite their rigid Spanish court dress and serious expressions they have that plump rosy-cheeked innocence of childhood which has disappeared in their subsequent portraits.

The painting is about to be prepared for an exhibition about court dress opening next May at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The Princesses will certainly be two of the child stars of the show. Between now and then the painting will be carefully removed from its architectural frame and taken to the conservation studio. Layers of ancient varnish will be removed, old splits in the canvas re-repaired and a new frame built. And after their time in the spotlight is over, they will be returned to their vantage point, ready to watch subsequent generations of visitors pass through their doorway.

Anna Reynolds is the Curator of Paintings at The Royal Collection

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