Visual clues to the identity of the headless sitter in Bling! Henry, a painting by Stephen Farthing, are a glimpse of a beard and the figure’s stocky stature. Rubies, diamonds and gold chains on his costume dazzle against a black background. Instantly recognisable, the jowly face of the bearded figure signals that this is Henry VIII (1491–1547), King of England and Ireland, renowned for his domineering reign and succession of turbulent marriages.
Referencing a street term from hip-hop culture of wearing gold jewellery, watches and accessories, ‘bling' takes on a new and witty association in Farthing’s painting. Henry’s Tudor chain and jewels are just as ostentatious as any rapper’s medallion. Whether a symbol of kingship or fashion, in both cases, ‘bling’ denotes power and social status.
Bling! Henry is from The Headless Monarch, a series of paintings and drawings by Farthing that were based on the clothing and jewellery of 16th century court portraiture. As a student in Paris in 1974, he became fascinated by historical representations of Louis XV. Later, in 1995, Farthing described how a visit to see the famous Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I at the National Portrait Gallery re-ignited his earlier interest in early French portraiture. In his ‘Bling!’ series, Farthing playfully explores the constructed world of historical court portraiture in which aspects of sitters’ true identities remain hidden beneath the overt physical trappings of wealth and status.
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