A group portrait of Catherine de Medici with her children first bought by Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and recorded as hanging in his London home in 1774 is returning to Strawberry Hill House
247 years later, thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme, administered by the Arts Council.
The monumental 1561 work (measuring 198 x 137.2 cm) by the Workshop of François Clouet, a highly successful portrait painter at the French court (1510 1572) - which has only been publicly displayed three times in the past 126 years - will go on permanent display for everyone to enjoy in the main Gallery at Strawberry Hill House when it reopens to visitors on 17 May.
The significance of this imposing portrait of the family of perhaps the most powerful woman in 16th-century Europe Queen consort to King Henry II of France (who reigned 1547-1559) - Catherine de Medici (1519-89), cannot be overstated. The painting is historically unique as the only surviving contemporaneous portrait of renowned patron of the arts, Catherine, and four of her ten children. It is also artistically rare, as one of the first full-length composition of its type, pioneering a genre that would become something of a standard in royal portraiture - until this point, the norm for international royal portraiture consisted of single, full-length, life-sized figures, positioned in shallow spatial settings.
Also unique in this portrait is the sense of motherhood and how it portrays the bond between the members of the family - they are close and they look alike, something exceptional in portraiture of this period.
The painting depicts the last members of the Valois dynasty, whose rule of France (beginning in 1328) was defined in the 16th-century by the French Wars of Religion, and finally extinguished upon the succession of the House of Bourbon in 1589. The portrait depicts Catherine de Medici, with her arm around and holding the hand of Charles IX (1550-74), her third son, who was crowned King of France in 1560, aged just ten, and for whom she acted as regent during the first three years of his reign. The inscription at the base of this painting: ANN AETA SUAE XI (in his eleventh year), indicates that the boy has already ascended the throne in his minority.
Also included are his brother, the future King Henri III, Duc dAnjou (1551-89), his sister, Marguerite de Valois, future Queen of Navarre (1553-1615), and François- Hercule, Duc dAnjou and Alençon (1555-84). Catherines gestures are highly symbolic, as she simultaneously presents the young monarch and protectively keeps him close to her, reflecting the substantial influence she held over the political life of France and the control and guidance she exercised over her sons rule.
How did such an important painting for French history end up in the UK? That is a mystery still to be solved however we do know that Horace Walpole bought it for £25 from a Mr Byde of Herfordshire in 1774.
Walpole owned a number of valuable works of art linked to the Valois dynasty, and was also fascinated by the Medici his interest beginning during his Grand Tour when he spent 13 of his 30 months in Florence. Walpoles library included Medici biographies, festival books and catalogues of their art and objects - he even debated writing a history of the Medici Family, starting to prepare for it in 1759, but eventually dropping the project due to a lack of archival material. Walpole's interest in the Valois and the Medici is closely related to his fascination with the Tudors, to whom, at Strawberry Hill House he consecrated an entire room, the Holbein Chamber.
Derek Purnell, Director, Strawberry Hill House & Garden, said: We are delighted to be able to share this rare and important group portrait by Workshop of Clouet of Catherine de Medici and her Children with our visitors and we are grateful to the Acceptance in Lieu panel of the Arts Council for making this possible. Clouet is a painter who deserves greater recognition and the historical importance of the de Medici family is undisputed. That Horaces Walpole owned this painting adds to the compelling stories of Catherines political influence in Europe and her patronage of the arts. We look forward to sharing these stories and displaying this remarkable painting at its rightful home.
Dr Silvia Davoli, Curator at Strawberry Hill House added: The acquisition of this unique portrait of Catherine de Medici with her Children is important not just for its great intrinsic value and meaning, but also because it gives us, at Strawberry Hill House, the possibility to reconstruct one of the many historical narratives that were at the basis of Walpoles collecting strategies. This portrait speaks to us of Walpole's interest in the Italian and French Renaissance, its protagonists and great art.