Arthur Szyk, King George VI, London: 1938. Original watercolor and gouache painting. 7 ½” x 5 ¼”. In original frame with fine French matting. Signed and dated. “Arthur Szyk Pinxit. [Latin: he painted it] London. 1938.”
The Academy Award-nominated film The King’s Speech sheds new light on the life of King George VI. Currently on view in Gallery 1 at the Legion of Honor is a portrait of the king that provides yet another glimpse of the royal.
King George VI was painted by Arthur Szyk in the illuminated style with an intricate, richly designed border pattern and a profusion of traditional iconography representing Great Britain. In this painting, the 43-year-old king is presented in full military uniform before an open window. Behind the window curtain of royal tartan cloth, the River Thames and the Palace of Westminster appear in exquisite miniature. In the upper right corner is a shield representing a composite of the United Kingdom’s symbols. Topped by St. Edward’s crown are: the motto of the Royal Order of the Garter “honi soit qui mal y pense” (evil be to him who evil thinks); the royal motto “Dieu et Mon Droit” (my God and my right); the lion of England and the royal unicorn of Scotland, the royal orb (crown), Scottish lions, and the Irish harp. Within the quarter-inch illuminated border are additional micro-shields with further symbols of the realm, including Scottish thistles, Irish harps and shamrocks.
King George VI (1895–1952) was christened Albert Arthur Frederick George and known as “Bertie” to his intimates. He was more formally Prince Albert, Duke of York, until the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII forced an unexpected (and unwanted) kingship upon him in 1936. As the Nazis bombed London during the Blitzkrieg of 1940, the king and his royal family remained at Buckingham Palace despite repeated efforts by his ministers to remove them to safer ground. George went so far as to practice firing his revolver, vowing that he would defend Buckingham “to the death.” The actions of the King and Queen (later known as the Queen Mother during Elizabeth II’s reign) throughout the war years greatly added to the prestige of the monarchy. The people of England never forgot that their king put his duty to his country before his own safety.
Arthur Szyk settled in London in 1937 to supervise the printing of his Haggadah. When it was published in 1940 it was dedicated to King George VI, who was presented with the first copy. An entire page, painted in 1936, comprises the dedication leaf to the king. It reads: “At the feet of your most gracious majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands shewing forth the afflictions of my people Israel. Arthur Szyk, illuminator of Poland.” Szyk included a self-portrait in this illumination.
In the spring of 1939, Szyk had an exhibition in London that included original illuminations from his Haggadah along with a number of historical portraits and Jewish subjects. The Queen Mother, Mary, purchased a miniature of Szyk’s St. George and the Dragon for her son at this exhibition. Not only was George the name of her son, St. George is also the patron saint of England. The acquisition was noted in the newspapers of the day and brought much prestige to Szyk. It is still in the royal collection today.
Contributed in collaboration with Lynka Adams, Historicana