Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660

January 20, 2011

At a time when our present Queen has recently opened a Facebook page, studying the image-making and "spin" strategies of past British monarchs seems to have added topicality. Kevin Sharpe's new and weighty book forms the second part of a projected trilogy. Readers, therefore, must turn to the opening section of his first volume on the Tudors, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England, for a discussion of his conceptual framework and methodology. Hints of what is to come in the third volume occur at a number of points in the present study.

Image Wars brings Sharpe back to his home territory of the early Stuarts and shows clearly that although the projection of images of authority was a common denominator in this period, there were marked contrasts at different points in time in the devices deployed to achieve this goal. James I, the most prolific royal author, relied chiefly on the power of words, both in poetry and prose; his collected Works, published in 1616, in appearance as well as intent, formed a companion volume to the King James Bible, brought out only five years previously.

Unintentionally, however, in making so many utterances, as Sharpe makes clear, James entered an increasingly contentious public sphere. His son, Charles I, a man of far fewer words, took a different approach, and attempted to re-mystify the monarchy through visual display, notably in court masques and in portraiture (and supremely so in Van Dyck's depiction of the king as ruler and family man).

For Charles, words were chiefly a last resort, used to greatest effect at his trial and in the resoundingly successful, self-justificatory Eikon Basilike, probably first issued on the day of his execution. It was this that gave him his final victory in the war of print and ensured his canonisation as royal martyr.

The republic's decision to sell off Charles' famous royal art collection and other kingly possessions, a tactic designed to erase the memory of monarchy, backfired totally. Indeed, it helped to perpetuate such memories through the dispersal of what became prized or venerated royal relics. Cromwell's projection of a quasi-regal image after 1653 could not displace the powerful, lingering persona of the executed king.

Sharpe makes skilful use here of a wide range of source materials - letters, speeches, sermons, paintings, medals, seals, coinage, architecture and statues - and presents a well-argued case for the achievements of the first two Stuarts as image-makers. The republic, by contrast, comes across as initially sluggish and faltering in projecting its credentials of power. To some extent, Cromwell made up for lost ground, and indeed in his funeral was displayed as a crowned king, but his personal success made him an impossibly hard act to follow.

This is obviously a work of deep research, as 100 pages of endnotes attest, and it is well written and consistently argumentative. At times, however, the arguments verge on special pleading, and there is some repetition. In claiming novelty for his own enterprise, Sharpe has a tendency to underplay the contributions of his various predecessors in the field.

The chief downside of this book, however, is entirely the fault of the publishers. Many of the illustrations, which are indispensable to the subject, are so murkily reproduced almost as to lose their point. At times it can be virtually impossible to follow the author's detailed and surely incisive exposition of particular images, as the reader cannot see them clearly.

Image Wars: Promoting Kings and Commonwealths in England, 1603-1660

By Kevin Sharpe. Yale University Press, 512pp, £35.00. ISBN 9780300162004. Published 30 August 2010

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