King Joseph, completely unprompted, was staring fixedly at the portrait on the wall above my mother’s head. It was enormous; the largest portrait in the room, and he could hardly have missed it.
“What a magnificent painting,” the King pronounced, still not taking his eyes away it.
Even though she knew what he referred to, my mother turned slightly in her chair to glance up at the portrait, as though she had only just noticed it. “Ah yes, the portrait of my father with my uncles and aunts,” she said. “It’s a Larkin, painted in 1770. It has been celebrated for its background, which is modelled on Raphael’s School of Athens, arguably a self-indulgent statement on the part of its subjects.”
“Goodness, no!” gushed the king, the instant my mother’s mouth closed on the word ‘subjects’. “They are a magnificent family, and no admirer of art could possibly overlook these marvellous figures in favour of any background. They are so perfectly matched! You must tell me the story of each of them when you have time.”
My mother looked uneasy. “You are aware, of course, that they are the children of my grandmother, Queen Gwendalynn,” she said awkwardly. “And the grandchildren of King Rewan.”
“Ah, Queen Gwendalynn!” the king crowed. “One of Rowenia’s more eccentric monarchs, I believe?”
“Indeed,” said my mother with an uncomfortable smile, as though she had expected the king to say something else.
“I have half a mind to commission a portrait of my own children according to this model,” the king continued. “But I fear they are not as well-matched. I am too rich in sons.”
Across from us, Eugenia Gwendolyn and Ariana Prudence nervously peered up at the portrait from beneath their eyelashes, and the three boys silently continued to watch their father. I knew what the king referred to. In the portrait of the children of Queen Gwendalynn, which included my grandfather, most of the figures were arranged in pairs, each of which was distinguished by the colour of their costumes. In the centre of the piece, my grandfather and his next brother were dressed in rich court costumes with long robes draped over their arms. My grandfather was in crimson, and his brother in purple, and each was flanked by one of their sisters, attired in the same colour. All around them, their many siblings were arranged in similar pairs, in colours ranging from dark blue to bright yellow. In the foreground of the picture, the five youngest children were arranged in a playful white-and-pink heap.
I had always liked this portrait, and in my mind each figure had attained its own personality long before I had known anything of their actual histories. When I was very small, and had occasionally been brought into the huge and mysterious dining room that dominated my parents’ evenings, I was captivated by certain forms: for me, the central figure was not my grandfather, with his head grandly centred against a narrow backdrop of sky and clouds that is visible through the fictional golden arches of the background. I was first attracted by the standing young girl in the short, airy white dress and pink sash (later identified as five-year-old Princess Elizabeth), her golden head silhouetted against the crimson skirts of the older girl. Her feet in their pink slippers were planted almost in the middle of one of the large yellow stones of the floor, and whilst one arm hung idly by the side, she gazed in profile into the face of one of her sisters, who knelt on the floor with arms circling the form of a thickly cossetted baby. I always wondered what she was doing, standing motionless while the four other youngest children seemed so preoccupied: the kneeling girl, though momentarily distracted, was clearly preoccupied with the baby; the very small child to her right, seated on the floor and leaning on one arm, reached her hand up as though to grab something; the small boy to the left, also in profile, stares back towards the group as he appears to wriggle backwards away from them. Apart from the baby, each of the youngest children had their eyes fixed on the kneeling girl, who looked strangely guilty, as though she had done something wrong.
Then there was the pretty young girl in light blue (Princess Caroline, aged fourteen), whose brown ringlets hang down copiously over one shoulder. She looks back towards her similarly light-blue brother, appearing to pull gently on his arm as he, with an unwilling expression, slowly steps forward. Behind her are a serious-looking pair in green, both in profile. The girl (Princess Georgiana, twenty-one), with her agitated stare, clasped hands, and matronly turban, is the antithesis of the beautiful young girl, whilst the boy (Prince John Frederick, twenty-two, appearing older than his years) has powdered hair drawn tightly back from his face, and hands clasped behind her back. Like many of the older ones, they gaze submissively towards their oldest brother. This pair in green looked so severe that I imagined they would stop to scold the pretty girl for her inattentiveness, the sulky boy for his unwillingness, or one of the wriggling toddlers for the noise they must be making. I later learned that these two, and Prince John Frederick especially, were among the most cheerful of the group. The painter, Larkin, actually wrote that between sittings, John Frederick had been seen to give his sister Caroline piggy-back rides.
There were other details, too. The girl in purple holds a black book, though none of the others have anything. The gangly-looking boy in orange on the far right has part of his head obscured by the sloping arch that stands in front of them all. Apart from the baby, the boy in dark-blue is the only one who stares directly out of the picture; the girl in dark-blue, who holds his arm, has a very long neck.
But some of these ‘pairings’ were imperfect, and so I did not completely understand the king’s reasoning. If King Joseph was rich in sons, Queen Gwendalynn’s were outnumbered by their sisters. The young children in pink (mostly girls) were not arranged in pairs. In yellow, a pair of twin girls had to share the boy in yellow.