At Home with Richard III

Richard III and I go way back. I guess if anyone told me years ago that I would invite a maligned historical figure to be a permanent guest in my home, I would have been wondering what meds they were on. But once Richard made himself comfortable and I got to know him a little better, he’s become a unique and compelling fixture in my life.

It was Edwin Austin Abbey who first introduced us. Abbey was an American illustrator during the Victorian period, who honed his craft in England, influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His work was theatrical, with a widescreen-like composition featuring crowds in dramatic, often Shakespearean, action. For example, the print below-- one of his illustrations for King Lear.

The Abbey at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, called The Penance of Eleanor (viewed here) , has been a favorite of mine since college. There’s just something about the Gothic atmosphere, the rich reds and purples, and that creepy magician in the corner that simultaneously fascinates and frightens.

Then one day a routine visit to an antique store uncovered an amazing find. Across this precariously-stacked shop was a chromolithograph of a work I was sure I recognized. It was Abbey’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

And after a bit of quick negotiation with a dealer who seemed politely befuddled why I would want such a thing (poor Abbey has found himself terribly out-of-fashion in the Art World), I brought the four-foot-long, heavy oak-framed piece home. Richard had found his place.

Since Richard took up residence in my living room, I’ve learned quite a bit more about him. For centuries, texts have analyzed the questionable circumstances surrounding the disappearance of his nephews-- heirs to the throne Prince Edward and Prince Richard. Whether or not he locked these children in the Tower of London, and murdered them to usurp the crown, has been a rich source of continued, often-passionate debate. Was Richard the hunchbacked, duplicitous monster that Thomas More, Shakespeare and Allison Weir have said? Or is it possible that he was a fair ruler, a decent uncle, and history has done him a great disservice (as Revisionists like Horace Walpole, AJ Pollard, Bertram Fields and, er, Blackadder I, suggest)?

Having read theories from both sides, visited the Tower of London in person, and witnessed the propaganda machine of our own tumultuous politics, I have begun to feel ol’ Dickon may have, in part, gotten a bum rap. No one can be as wholly unredeemable as writers like one-note Weir have made him out to be. And that’s human nature, not just history.

Ironically, a second antique store brought me a mezzotint of the supposed victims in this 600-year-old mystery, Millais’ The Princes in the Tower. So now, to the right side of my original “Richard,” young Prince Edward and his brother wait on the stairs for all eternity-- fearful, listening, as an approaching figure casts a shadow in the cold, stone corridor. Is it the approach of their protector or their doom? Minds a lot sharper than mine have yet to answer this question.

Now I do recognize that having one of medieval history’s most notorious villains as the focal-point of the living room is probably not everyone’s cup of mead. First and foremost, interior design should be something you can live with. But honestly, since he’s come to stay, Richard’s been just no trouble at all-- the ideal guest in many ways. And if anything, the artwork serves as a constant reminder that whether you surround yourself with family photos, cherished landscapes or even loathed Shakespearean antagonists, art should be something that sparks your interest and your imagination.

Follow-up Fun:

  • If anyone has an Abbey similar to mine, or has any information regarding the origins of this particular print, I’d love to hear from you. This piece came just as you see it here, and I’ve been trying to track down any info on its provenance, age, etc. The print has become almost as mysterious to me as Richard himself!
  • To learn more about Edwin Austin Abbey and his work, click here. This site has some pretty good overview information and shows a number of his well-known works. Sadly, the bulk of his collection is underappreciated and undisplayed at Yale, due to space constraints and current trends in modern art. (How many great things are out there, I wonder, that we never, ever get to see?)
  • To learn why Richard III may have had a seriously bad PR problem thanks to the Tudor spin-doctors, click here. This will take you to the Richard the III Society, a group of revisionist historians working to clear Richard’s name. Viewpoints run from the logical and relatively-balanced to the sincere but far-fetched. Still, you have to appreciate folks who can get this jazzed about things that happened in 1483!