1688, and all that

I realise it’s probably only because I’m sensitised to it these days, but sometimes it seems as if those blasted Stuarts are everywhere.

Case in point: off-blog, I’ve been reading some of the works of R. Austin Freeman, creator of Dr John Thorndyke (the first medical detective), and I’m currently in the middle of The Great Portrait Mystery, a collection of short stories from 1918.

The title story involves strange doings at the National Gallery, with a certain painting stolen using a clever ruse, but then returned apparently unharmed. Close examination reveals that it isn’t quite the same: the portrait has been detached from the lower bar of its stretcher, and the bar itself removed and replaced. The story’s hero, on whose watch all this happened, feels compelled to get to the bottom of the mystery.

And the painting?

    The original was a portrait of James the Second by Sir Godfrey Kneller… “The picture has quite an interesting history,” said Fittleworth. “It was painted by Kneller in 1688, and the story goes that the king was actually sitting to the painter when a messenger arrived with the news that the Prince of Orange had landed in Torbay. The portrait was intended as a gift to Samuel Pepys to whom the king was greatly attached, and in spite of the agitation that the bad tidings naturally produced, he commanded Kneller to proceed and get the portrait finished so that his old friend and loyal servant should not be disappointed.”
    “And did Pepys get the picture?” Katharine asked.
    “Yes; and what’s more, it remains in the possession of the family to this day…”

It subsequently turns out that the story’s heroine, Miss Katharine Hyde, is a remote connection of Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, and his daughter, Anne—James’ first wife—and that the key to the mystery is hidden in her inherited family house.

Kneller certainly painted James at least once (there seems some debate about whether the second portrait is actually Kneller’s own work), but this particular portrait is a figment of Austin Freeman’s imagination.

4 Responses to “1688, and all that”

  1. So King James is turning into your version of “King Charles’s head” for poor Mr. Dick, from “David Copperfield”. At least you’re in good company.

  2. I read most of the Thorndykes last year – Gutenberg Australia has them. Good stuff!

    Considering the Stuarts’ propensities, it’s not surprising they keep turning up when one thinks one’s exterminated the lot of ’em. Like cockroaches…

  3. And given that (to my shame) cockroaches are the one critter out there that incline me to shriek and jump on a chair, rather than cooing, “Aw, who’s a cute little invertebrate, then?” at them, the comparison is even more apt.


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