Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Henry Stuart, Cardinal York 

Domenico Corvi (1721-1803)

Portrait of Henry Stuart, Cardinal York, Domenico Corvi
Oil on canvas
18th Century
29 x 24 in.
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Henry Benedict Stuart’s decision to become a Cardinal in the Catholic Church in 1747 had a profound effect on the Jacobite cause. The Stuarts’ Catholicism had always been one of the main barriers against their return to the English and Scottish thrones, and Henry’s public declaration of faith confirmed in the popular mind that the Jacobites would seek to not only restore Catholicism, but also the power of the Popes as well. In effect, Henry’s donning of Cardinal’s robes summoned memories from as long as ago as the reign of Bloody Mary.

Henry’s elder brother, Charles Edward, considered his brother’s decision to be a ‘dagger throw to my heart’. Charles had, just two years earlier, come unexpectedly close to regaining throne in the 1745 rebellion. During that time he had taken great pains to assuage potential supporters that the Stuart’s adherence to Catholicism was merely a private affair, and that there would be no repeat of the Catholic upheavals of his grandfather, James II’s reign. Indeed, Charles was so determined that Catholicism should not be a bar to him regaining the throne that he later made public the fact that he had converted to Anglicanism, during his daring secret visit to London in 1750.

Henry, however, saw the matter in a different light. He viewed Charles’ defeat after Culloden in 1746 as the final end of all Jacobite hopes, and believed that he was now able to not only follow his true vocation, but place the exiled Stuart family on a firm financial footing. One is bound to conclude that he was right. While Charles spent the remaining years of his life wandering forlornly and drunkenly across Europe, in the vain hope of rekindling his adventure of 1745, Henry rose through the ranks of the Church to become the most senior Cardinal in the Conclave.

It had been clear to all that Henry had been deeply religious from an early age. His piety may have been inherited from his mother, the Polish Princess, Maria Clementina Sobieska, who devoted much of her life to caring for the poor of Rome. Even as a young boy Henry would hear up to four masses a day. Nonetheless, he took an active role in the Stuart dream of restoration, and in 1745 was allowed to travel to France, after Charles had gone secretly ahead, to play a role in the planned invasion. Henry was to be head of the French invasion fleet at Dunkirk. As news of his brother’s defeat came through, however, his role switched to vainly trying to induce the French Navy to launch rescue missions for his brother.

When the two brothers were finally re-united in France, it seems as if relations between them had irrevocably changed. Henry and Charles had always been very close, but now Henry found Charles’ hopes of launching another invasion quite at odds with reality, while Charles grew ever more unimpressed with Henry’s pessimism. Their relationship was ended abruptly, when one night in April 1747 Henry invited Charles to dinner, but fled to Rome before he arrived. Charles was non-plussed, and the riddle was only solved several weeks later, when he received a letter from his father, stating: ‘ I know not whether you will be surprised, my dearest Carluccio, when I tell you that your brother will be made a cardinal the first days of next month.’ Charles and Henry did not see each other for twenty years.

Henry threw himself into his new role with all his energy. The many different portraitists to whom he sat in his new robes show how keen he was to publicise his new vocation. The present picture is by Domenico Corvi, and was painted in about 1748. Henry’s first sitting as a Cardinal was to Corvi in 1747, shortly before he sat to another artist Louis Gabriel Blanchet. Portraits from 1747 show him Cardinal’s robes, but before he had been ordained a priest by Pope Benedict XIV (his godfather) in September 1748. The present picture shows Henry wearing a jewelled cross, and therefore dates to late 1748. The demand for portraits of Henry in his new guise was strong – he was also painted by Anton Raphael Mengs in 1748 – and all three artists produced replicas of the sitter in varying sizes. A three quarter length by Corvi is now at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut. The present portrait was purchased from the Malatesta Palace in Rome by Sarah, Baroness Braye in 1842. The Marchese Malatesta had inherited the estate of Angelo Cesarini, who was Henry’s long-time private secretary and later his executor, to whom Henry left the bulk of his effects. Many Stuart relics were sold from the Malatesta Palace, including the portrait of Charles Edward painted in 1770 by Laurent Pecheux, and the pair of portraits by Pesci of James II and Maria Clementina, which are still in the Braye collection at Stanford Hall. Baroness Braye also bought numerous Stuart papers, as well as other items from Henry’s personal collection.

Portraits were vitally important to the exiled Stuarts, and acted as a means of keeping the cause alive amongst their Jacobite adherents and supportive governments in Europe. For example, pictures of Henry’s father, James III, had been particularly important, especially when he was a young man. Although James’ father, the exiled James II, lived until 1701, James III’s central political significance lay in the fact that he was a boy, whereas his Protestant sisters, Mary and Anne, who ruled in his and his father’s place, were conspicuously unable to provide any Stuart heirs themselves. Jacobite portraits thus served as visual reminders of James III’s health, vigour, and ultimate determination to regain the throne. The whole family took their portraits seriously; for example, we have a record that Henry, when he was young, sat for “about 14 Ours” for his. Such was the prominence of Jacobite imagery that Henry’s brother, Prince Charles, was obliged to take extra precautions during the preparations for his 1745 rebellion. When in Paris he wrote to his father: “Nobody nose where I am… I am obliged very often not to stur out of my room, for fier of some bodys noing my face.” For the Stuarts themselves, it was miniature portraits that were particularly useful as family mementoes, as one might expect during their increasingly frenetic and peripatetic lives. When Charles found that he missed his family, he wrote “with a request which is to have your picture, the Queen’s and the Duke’s in miniature so that since I have the misfortune of not seeing you, the pictures will be of some comfort in the meantime, which I hope in God may not be too long.”

However, Henry’s appointment as Cardinal had a subtle but important effect on Jacobite portraiture. Until then Jacobite portraits had been invariably political or propagandist in nature, often full of crowns and armour, and the sitters pointing wistfully to a ship in the distant sea heading to England. But now Henry’s religious vows and orders precluded the display of such props, including the wearing of the Order of the Garter, which until then had been constantly worn by the exiled Stuarts as an assertion of their legitimacy. Although Henry never renounced his rights to the crown, the changing of his image from before his ordination, as seen in the portraits in which he wears armour, such as the pastel by La Tour in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, to the more pacific and inherently Catholic presentation, may have been seen as a further signal that he believed the Jacobite’s chances of regaining the throne by force were lost. And of course, it demonstrated most emphatically that Henry, the last Stuart male claimant, would produce no heirs.

Henry never renounced his rightful claim to the crown, however. When Charles died in 1788 Henry styled himself Henry IX, and insisted on his staff addressing him as ‘Your Majesty’, even on occasion touching for the ‘King’s evil’, or scrofula. He petitioned the Pope to recognise him as King, but of course to no avail. Such lack of formal recognition no doubt accounts for the motto he had inscribed on medals of himself as King of England; ‘Non desideriis hominum, sed voluntate Dei’ – ‘Not by the choice of man, but by the will of God.’

Henry’s ecclesiastical career saw him amass numerous titles and great wealth. He became Bishop of Tusculum in 1761, and lived in the Episcopal palace in Frascati. He took great pleasure in dashing as fast as he could in his coach and six between Frascati and Rome; speed was apparently one of his great delights. He also patronized the arts and literature, and seems to have developed a bond great affection with his diocese, doing numerous charitable works. Much of his wealth came from overseas dioceses, such as in Mexico, the gifts of various monarchs and princes. Henry was thus able to support his ageing father, and after his death his spendthrift brother, with whom he was reunited in 1766.

Henry’s circumstances changed, however, when napoleon invaded the Papal States in 1798. Henry, who was in Rome at the time, lost almost everything overnight, and was forced to flee south to Naples, only finally finding refuge in Venice after a perilous thwenty-three day journey by sea. Ironically, it was the British Government that came to his aid; George III, moved by his kinsman’s fate, supplied a pension of £4000. Indeed, the Hanoverians and Henry seem to have been quite fond of each other, for when one of George III’s younger sons, the Duke of Sussex, met Henry whilst on his grand tour, Henry was touched to be greeted as ‘Your Royal Highness’. And one of the leading subscribers to the tomb by Canova in which Henry is buried in St Peter’s, Rome, alongside his father and brother, was George IV.

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