An archivist at the National Portrait Gallery has found relics from the tomb of King Richard II which may allow scholars to accurately reconstruct how the 14th century English king looked like. The items were found while cataloguing the papers of the Gallery’s first Director Sir George Scharf (1820-1895). Among the hundreds of diaries and notebooks left behind in boxes not opened for years were contents from the coffin of a medieval English king, and sketches of his skull and bones.
The contents of a cigarette box dated 31 August 1871 were only identified as relics from a royal tomb following cataloguing, when it became possible to cross-reference the date on the front of the box with diary entries and sketches made on the same day. The box contained fragments of wood, possibly from the coffin itself, and some fabric. Records from this date reveal that Scharf was present at an opening of the royal graves at Westminster Abbey. A piece of leather corresponds particularly with Scharf’s sketch of a glove contained in the coffin. A full account of the event was recorded by the Very Reverend Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster and published in Archaeologia in 1879.
The Gallery’s founding Director also made careful sketches of the skull and bones of the king, including detailed measurements. The sketches are so faithfully drawn that they could possibly be used to reconstruct the king’s true appearance.
Krzysztof Adamiec, the assistant archivist at the London gallery who made the discovery told The Guardian it “just looked like a simple, empty box of cigarettes. 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.”
While cataloguing the papers, as part of a six-month online project funded by the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives http://archivecatalogue.npg.org.uk, it became clear that the nineteenth-century gallery director’s analytical approach to record-keeping extended well beyond art and contemporary society. He frequently attended the opening of graves and witnessed those of Richard II, Edward VI, Henry VII, James I and Elizabeth of York.
Adamiec added, ‘It was a very exciting discovery and one that reveals the hidden potential of Scharf’s papers. By matching diary entries, with sketches, notes and other material in the collection a unique record is revealed. Scharf meticulously recorded almost everything he saw and experienced. In reading his papers, one is able to reconstruct in minute detail ‘a day in the life’ of this remarkable Victorian gentleman.’
The Scharf papers held in the National Portrait Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library comprise business, personal and family records which reflect not only the history of the Gallery, but also the wider social history of Victorian England.
Scharf was a careful observer of life in his own times and his diaries, notebooks and sketches provide a detailed record of a changing London, everyday Victorian life, and important historic events of the era. They are also an exceptional resource for the study of portraits and portraiture. Alongside his responsibility, as Director, for building-up the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, Scharf also worked in a private capacity on various external projects. He was directly involved in some of the most significant exhibitions of the Victorian period, including Crystal Palace (after its relocation to Sydenham) in 1854 and the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1857.
The papers include 230 notebooks and sketchbooks, in which Scharf made detailed notes and meticulous drawings of portraits, people and places including Winston Churchill as a baby, Coventry before it was bombed and Wellington’s funeral. They also include Scharf’s observations on British private and public art collections.
Sir George Scharf was appointed in 1857, shortly after the Gallery was founded. His papers cover the first 38 years of the institution’s existence. They document its formative years, during which period there was a growing interest in national identity and awareness of the role that portraiture might play in representing British history.
Richard II ruled England from 1377 to 1399, and died a year later after being overthrown by Henry IV. His tomb was opened up for cleaning in 1871, and it was determined that the theory he was killed by an axe-blow to the head was wrong since no evidence of such a wound could be found on the skull.