April Artwork of the Month: 'Plucking the Red and White Roses'

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01 April 2016

Artwork of the Month: April 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare in 1616. In this short film, Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-upon-Avon describes an oil painting relating to Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’ in the East Corridor of Parliament’s Central Lobby.

The oil painting was commissioned in 1907 and was completed by Henry Payne in 1910. It illustrates the Plucking of the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens. Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, plucks a white rose signifying the House of York and his claim upon the throne. His great rival, the Duke of Somerset, John Beaufort, plucks a red rose symbolising the House of Lancaster. They invite their fellow noblemen to make a choice as to whether they pluck a red rose or a white rose.

This event supposedly happened in the mid-fifteenth century but is widely believed to have been fashioned by Tudor propagandists and popularised by Shakespeare. The uncertain historical basis of the scene was acknowledged by commentators in the late 1900s, but the reason for its inclusion in Parliament’s Central Lobby becomes clear in regard to the symbolism which Tudor propagandists attributed to it.

The purpose of this propaganda was to celebrate the Tudor dynasty not only as the legitimate heirs to the Yorkist and Lancastrian Houses (the protagonists in what became known as the ‘Wars of the Roses’) but as the union of these Houses through marriage of the Lancastrian Henry Tudor (Henry VII) with Elizabeth, the daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV. The Tudor rose with elements of both the red of Lancaster and the white of York represented this union. This scene therefore represents both the dynastic struggle which ended with the rise of the Tudors and the origins of the Tudor symbol itself.

The original scheme for Parliament’s East Corridor as set out by the Fine Arts Commission in 1847 was very different to how it is today. It was thought to be an ideal space to illustrate events from before Christianity and after the Revolution. However the scheme was abandoned and it was not until 1907 that renewed interest arose for the East Corridor under a new and more liberal government. It was decided that the decoration of this corridor was a priority and the select committee in charge of the commission suggested that the Tudor period would be a suitable theme. Individual artists were commissioned to paint each section and to keep visual unity. A colour scheme of predominantly black, red and gold was employed and the height of the characters was defined at 1.68m. The painting was donated by the 7th Earl Beauchamp and can be enjoyed today by Parliament’s visitors.

Image: ‘Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens’, oil painting by Henry Arthur Payne, 1910 (WOA 2593)

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