The Lost Prince: The colourful life of Henry Stuart in National Portrait Gallery/London

Today, few people have heard of Henry Stuart (1594-1612) – eldest son of King James VI and I, older brother to the future Charles I. But back in 1612 things were very different. In fact, when, in November of that year, Henry’s life was ended by typhoid fever (he was just 18), the entire nation was plunged into grief. At Henry’s lavish funeral procession, 2,000 official mourners were joined by thousands lining the streets “whose streaming eyes made knowen howe much inwardly their harts did bleed”.

Now, to mark the 400th anniversary of Henry’s death, the National Portrait Gallery is staging the first-ever exhibition to explore his brief but colourful life. The Lost prince will showcase more than 80 exhibits, including paintings, miniatures and manuscripts, from a who’s who of great 16th and 17th century artists, among them Peter Paul Rubens, Hans Holbein and Nicholas Hilliard.

“Henry was fascinated by the arts,” says Catherine MacLeod, curator of 17th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. “He was the first member of the royal family actively to collect European Renaissance paintings, he was great patron of garden designs and court masques and his collections ranged from sculptures to antiquities. So, this exhibition not only gives us an opportunity to tell his story, but also to showcase Jacobean culture in all its glory.”

One of Catherine MacLeod’s favourite exhibits shows Henry mounted on a grey horse accompanied by Father time. “The painting is allegorical,” she says. “If declaring that Henry’s time is coming, and that certainly reflects how a lot of people saw him. He was charismatic, brave, athletic, moral – and he was ardently Protestant. As such, he was the focus of great hope in terms of what he might achieve as the King of England.”

As it turned out, there was to be no King Henry IX. Instead, Charles would succeed James to the throne. “Charles hero-worshipped Henry,” says Catherine MacLeod, “and this is reflected in a poignant story of him bringing a small sculpture of a bronze horse to his older brother on his deathbed. A bronze horse is one of the highlights of our exhibition – and we think this may well be the very same sculpture.”

Admission: Adult £11.80

Opening Times:  18 October 2012 – 13 January 2013, Mon – Sun, 10.00 – 18.00. Closed 24 – 26 December.

Telephone: 020 7306 0055