The Lost King, review: Richard III’s rehabilitation continues in high style

Paul Delaroche's Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower (1831, detail) - Trustees of the Wallace Collection
Paul Delaroche's Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower (1831, detail) - Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Few issues in English history are so contested as the life and image of Richard III. The Plantagenet downfall at Bosworth Field immediately sparked conflicting accounts of the battle and a flurry of propaganda from Tudor England’s finest minds, from Thomas More to Shakespeare. Later portraits presented Richard with exaggerated physical impairments. Victorian sentimentalists seized on the apparent murder of Edward IV’s two sons, dubbing them “The Princes in the Tower”.

Then in 2012 came a stunning coup for the revisionists. A team of Leicester University architects led by Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society – a group doggedly committed to Richard III’s rehabilitation – unearthed his skeleton beneath a car park. Richard III’s reputation, and the mystery of his nephews’ disappearance, has moved from a historical enigma to something verging on a culture war – encompassing Tudors vs Plantagenets, North vs South, amateurs versus the historical establishment.

Now the Wallace Collection has weighed into the debate with a compelling exhibition coinciding with the release of a new film, The Lost King. This dramatisation of the Leicester dig stars Sally Hawkins as Langley and Harry Lloyd as Richard III. Over the years, Wallace Collection staff have advised on numerous big-screen portrayals of Richard III, including Laurence Olivier’s camp, iconic Machiavellian rendering.

But whereas Olivier wore a suit of rubber armour on set, Tobias Capwell, the Collection’s curator of arms and armour, created a magnificent bespoke suit of steel armour for Lloyd in the new film, using historical accounts and up-to-date research. Real armour, it turns out, has its advantages. During filming Olivier took, if not quite a bullet for the role, a stray arrow from a professional archer which penetrated his flimsy rubber suit, causing a painful leg injury.

Interestingly the display juxtaposes the replica armour with an underrated gem of the Collection – Paul Delaroche’s 1831 painting The Princes in the Tower. Delaroche, a French painter of mostly English historical scenes, imagines the boys’ assassination with heart-rending theatricality. The beautiful princes cower in the dark as the shadow of their approaching killer falls outside the door. Delaroche, I learnt, even used a little girl as the model for the younger prince, to heighten the sense of pathos and frailty.

Sally Hawkins and Harry Lloyd in the new film The Lost King - Graeme Hunter
Sally Hawkins and Harry Lloyd in the new film The Lost King - Graeme Hunter

This is a small-scale exhibition that could have used more wide-ranging material; perhaps through a few more depictions of Richard III. But the Wallace Collection’s breathtaking Renaissance equestrian armoury and Capwell’s replica both expose an overlooked aspect of this king – his bravery in battle, verging on the foolhardy. Richard, perhaps unwisely, wore a crown royal into battle, and rather than dying calling for a horse, as Shakespeare portrayed him, fought valiantly to the end. The exhibit includes, alongside the replica, a quote overheard by eyewitnesses on the battlefield. “God forbid I yield one step, this day I will die as a king or win”.

From September 7 until Jan 8 2023; wallacecollection.org