As interpretations of history painting changed their content drew more than ever from artistic interpretation. This image by Daniel Maclise, the Cork born painter of Scottish descent, depicts William Caxton showing his first print run to Edward IV and his family. Its all very nuclear with Elizabeth Woodville snuggled up against Edward’s shoulder – her eldest daughter Elizabeth of York by her side. In front of the king stands his heir Edward and younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury. The illustration can be found in Cassell’s History of England. But is it history?
One of Caxton’s friends and patron in England was Elizabeth’s brother Anthony, 2nd Earl Rivers. Anthony translated works that Caxton printed and some of the printers works found their way into the future Edward V’s library at Ludlow where Lord Rivers was responsible for his nephew’s education.
Rivers was not the only contact Caxton had with the royal family. He had found patronage in Europe in the person of Margaret of Burgundy – Edward IV’s sister. Caxton probably printed his first book in England in 1474. Two years later he moved into the Almonry in Westminster – where Maclise situated his painting – Caxton was under the Abbot of Westminster’s patronage at that time.
We become part of the audience watching the king and queen’s response and are drawn to the centre of the picture which has a ‘spot light’ of brightness. Even Caxton’s dog gets in on the act creating a very domestic scene. it’s all very cosy – no wonder the children’s uncle was in receipt of a bad press after Edward’s death!
Daniel was born in Cork but lived most of his life in England where ehe made his living as an artist and illustrator. He illustrated several of Charles Dickens’ Christmas books for instance. In 1858 he was commissioned to make two paintings; one depicting Wellington, the second Nelson. He was chosen because of his picture in 1854 of the marriage of Strongbow to Aoife of Leinster. His works were huge and very detailed. His health suffered and he died on 25 April 1870.
Maclise would have been able to refer to Gerald of Wales for information about the wedding as it provides an account of the Siege of Waterford which took place before the wedding. To all intents and purposes the images looks like a monumental depiction in a neoclassical tradition using all of the theatricality which can be associated with Victorian history paintings. The light falls upon Aoife, an innocent, about to marry Strongbow fully armed and clad in black armour. There’s a reason why the old westerns placed white hats upon the goodies and black ones upon the heads of the baddies! it would be rather unexpected for a parliamentary painter descended from Scottish ancestors to start expressing Nationalist sympathies but there must be a reason why Strongbow also has his foot on top of a fallen Celtic cross.