Richard II relics found in National Portrait Gallery archive

Skull drawings could be used to recreate true likeness of king who died in 1400 after being deposed by Henry IV

Researchers sifting the contents of long-unopened boxes at the National Portrait Gallery have discovered relics from the coffin of Richard II, along with detailed drawings of his skull which could be used to create a true likeness of the deposed medieval king.

To say the researchers were taken aback by the discovery in the archive of the gallery's founding director, Sir George Scharf, is perhaps an understatement.

"It was very surprising, yes," said Krzysztof Adamiec, the assistant archivist at the London gallery who made the discovery. The relics, he said, at first "just looked like a simple, empty box of cigarettes". He added: "But when I opened it up there were strips of leather and pieces of wood. It was very exciting for me – it's one of the biggest pleasures of this job to literally feel that you are touching history."

The wood is likely to be from Richard II's coffin, while there is compelling evidence that the leather is from his glove. There are also meticulously detailed sketches of the king's skull and bones, together with measurements which the gallery believes could be used to recreate a true likeness.

Scharf took charge of the gallery shortly after it was founded in 1857. After some detective work Adamiec was able to connect the relics in his archive with the decision in 1871 to open Richard's grave at Westminster Abbey.

The original intention was to clean the tombstones but, being inquisitive Victorians, those responsible decided that the coffin should be opened to try to establish how the king died in 1400 – after he was deposed by Henry IV – and whether it was because of an axe to the head. It wasn't.

Scharf, an enthusiastic witness, decided to pocket some mementoes, something which would be frowned upon now but was a "Victorian gentleman" thing to do. He was clearly a collector. Researchers have also found in the archive a pebble from the grave of Lord Macaulay, a piece of frame from a Raphael painting and the edge of a Van Dyck canvas.

The archive contains a huge amount of material, something like 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, which the gallery is about to complete cataloguing. Adamiec said: "He was a very meticulous man; he recorded everything. Every day he would make a note of the weather, which direction the wind blew, what he ate, who he met. Sometimes he would draw the table plans of dinners he attended."

Scharf, born in 1820, inherited his love of drawing from his father, who would take him on drawing expeditions, including one in 1834, to the ruins of the Palace of Westminster after the devastating fire, also documented in several paintings by JMW Turner. In 1854, he missed out on becoming director of the National Gallery but three years later was appointed secretary to the new NPG.

He was a prominent member of the Society of Antiquaries and seems to have particularly enjoyed grave openings, among them Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York.

The Scharf archive catalogue is now available online, joining the papers of other gallery directors including Sir Lionel Cust and Sir Roy Strong.


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
National Portrait Gallery to close for three years for revamp
London gallery’s works to tour regional galleries across the UK before it reopens in 2023

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

05, Nov, 2019 @5:36 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery reveals all in online archive
From cleaver-wielding suffragettes to a gun-toting delusional Edwardian, the National Portrait Gallery has played host to more than portraiture in its 150-year history

Mark Brown, Arts correspondent

03, Feb, 2010 @4:21 PM

Article image
Slaver! Invader! The tour guide who tells the ugly truth about museum portraits
Was Lord Nelson a white supremacist? Was Queen Victoria a thief? Alice Procter take us on one of her Uncomfortable Art Tours, which aim to show how the empire still exerts a grip on British galleries

Bridget Minamore

24, Apr, 2018 @10:46 AM

Article image
Sex and the city: 1660s London brought to life at National Maritime Museum
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution exhibition explores the great cultural and scientific changes that shook Restoration England

Jonathan Jones

13, Nov, 2015 @4:07 PM

Amy Winehouse painting acquired for National Portrait Gallery
Marlene Dumas painting of singer, Amy Blue, goes on public display at London gallery

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

26, Nov, 2012 @6:02 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery buys postcard-sized portrait of Elizabeth I
Flattering painting shows queen in role of Paris choosing between goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite

Maev Kennedy

08, May, 2013 @2:07 PM

Article image
Restored to his laurels John Dryden portrait unveiled at National Portrait Gallery

Celebratory painting of first official poet laureate bought from private collection by National Portrait Gallery

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

15, Apr, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery buys painting of young Dylan Thomas
Cherubic painting by the Welsh poet’s friend Augustus John has been acquired for £214,750

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

16, Aug, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery launches appeal to buy Wellington painting
Gallery needs to raise £300,000 to acquire unfinished Duke of Wellington portrait – and plug a 160-year-old gap in its collection

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

03, Nov, 2016 @2:30 PM

Article image
National Portrait Gallery to get new wing as part of revamp
Blavatnik Wing will host more than 100 years of British portraits when London institution reopens in 2023

Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondent

23, Nov, 2022 @1:32 PM