Richard III Distortion for propaganda, 1452 – 1485

Richard III, portrait with overpaint, c. 1504–20 View ‘Richard III, portrait with overpaint, c. 1504–20’ on the British Library website


This painting in the Royal Collection was first recorded in an inventory of Henry VIII’s collection and would have been commissioned either by Henry VII or Henry VIII as part of a set of royal portraits. The artist is unknown but likely to have been British or Flemish and working at the royal court. Examination of the wooden panel on which the portrait was painted suggests a date between 1504 and 1520.

Finding a true likeness of Richard III is difficult, as his portrayal in art – as in literature and history – has been muddied by propaganda. His Tudor successors, from Henry VII onwards, had a vested interest in portraying Richard III as a bad King to increase their own legitimacy as the line who deposed him. In art, this was done with visual signs based on social values of the time, some of which we would now find prejudicial and offensive. There are external signs, as in a portrait where Richard holds a broken sword symbolising his defeat and failed monarchy; signs of personality in his features, such as painting him with a mean or severe facial expression; and signs written into the characteristics of his body, which is often presented with exaggerated physical impairments to his hand and shoulder, and a dark complexion and hair and eye colour. In the 15th and 16th centuries, darker features and physical impairments were sometimes read as outward signs of inward moral failings. Richard had scoliosis and writers of the Tudor period (including Shakespeare) latched on to this physical difference as a way to tarnish his reputation and prove that he was evil, revelling in a rhetoric of deformity and monstrosity.

This painting seems to show a deliberate decision to alter Richard’s likeness along these propagandist lines. It was likely copied from a pattern or painting made during Richard’s lifetime, but at some point either during its creation or shortly after the portrait was completed, the subject’s right shoulder was altered, the line of his coat being raised to exaggerate or create an unevenness in the shoulders that either wasn’t there or was very slight before. This alteration can be seen with the naked eye as the overpaint has aged differently to the original layer. It has also been suggested that the eyes were overpainted to appear steely grey and that the mouth was turned down at the corners.

The complex relationship between the portrayal of disabled bodies and the purposes to which artists put those portrayals is still a contentious issue for Richard III. When actors play the part of Richard (and these actors are mostly non-disabled), they make decisions about what limps, what crutches, what prosthetic humps will contribute to his physical portrayal. Furthermore, they make decisions about how this physicality relates to Richard’s psychology, his motivation, his nature, even his guilt. What do these decisions say about our attitudes to Richard’s body, or to disabled bodies in general? One might ask if it is even possible to play Shakespeare’s Richard without falling into the trap of portraying his physical impairments as a symbol or cause of the character’s immorality.

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