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Visual arts: The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics (Holburne Museum, Bath)

22 April 2022

Susan Gray views Tudor portraits in a Bath museum

© National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VII by an unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505. One of the portraits in the exhibition

King Henry VII by an unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505. One of the portraits in the exhibition

SHAKING assumptions about the nature of portraiture has become a speciality of the Holburne Museum, and “The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics” continues this theme. While the popular image of portraiture, promoted by Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year, is of a contemporaneous art form, in which the likeness of the sitter is faithfully recorded in real time, this exhibition contains copies of previous portraits, works created long after their subject died, and historical-tableaux recreations.

The show opens with a painting leaving London for the first time in living memory, Sir Henry Unton (1596-1606), capturing the soldier and diplomat’s life story from birth to burial in Farringdon Church, with images of his travels in Britain and Europe spanning the two events.

Commissioned posthumously by his widow. the portrait reveals a Wolf Hall landscape, with Britain and the Continent closely entwined, when travel by water made France as accessible to London as Norfolk. Europe also supplied the artists working in Britain, most notably Hans Holbein, Nicholas Hillard, and Hans Eworth, although many portrait-painters of the period remained anonymous.

On the wall devoted to religion, the first slots are devoted to the “three Thomases”: More, Cranmer, and Cromwell. More’s portrait is dated to the early 17th century and is a copy of Hans Holbein the Younger’s work. After More’s execution in 1535, copies of Holbein’s memorial to him were in high demand across Europe. Cranmer’s portrait was completed by Gerlach Ficke, ten years before Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury also faced the scaffold in 1556.

The seated portrait shows Cranmer in austere clerical dress, all black and white, apart from an oxblood stole in the same fabric as the curtains. Cromwell’s portrait is also an early-17th-century copy of a Holbein work from 1532-33. The seated Chancellor does not look at the viewer: his power is conveyed by the rolled scroll in his hand and the rich browns of his broad fur colour.

The most striking image is a 1575 fantastical portrait of King Edward VI and the Pope, by an unknown artist, painted 20 years after Edward VI’s death. Its inspiration may have been the excommunication of Elizabeth I. On the left of the plane, Henry VIII gestures from his deathbed towards his son, who sits on a dais, top centre, above a book declaring “the word of ye Lord enduret forever.” Squashed beneath the boy king is a cowering pope, his neck and head skewed horizontally to the left, and framed with a banner saying “idolatry”. The pope’s pink vestments are inscribed across the chest with “all flesh is grasse”.

On the right of the canvas, Edward’s council sit around a table, Thomas Cranmer in black and white clericals, is third right from the king. Above his head is a sketchy grey painting of sacred images being destroyed. For such a densely populated work, the painting of the faces is delicate: Edward’s boyish face shows fine modelling in the rosy cheeks and iris detail of the eyes. The image is dotted with plain stone tablets, probably intended for additional messages, to be inscribed later.

Next come two more traditional portraits of father and son-in-law Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Philip Sidney. Hidden beneath the bearded-face-with-ruff canvas of Walsingham (1585), regarded as the founder of England’s secret service, owing to his network of informers and double agents, a devotional image of the Virgin and Child has been painted over. X-rays revealed the composition’s similarity with a bright, flower-filled work of Hans Memling, now in the Prado.

Sidney’s three-quarter-length pose in silver embroidered doublet was painted the following year. The inscription, Carera Fama, the rest is fame, may have been added at a later date, reflecting Sidney’s public standing as a poet, diplomat, and counsellor to the queen. Despite his being named after his Roman Catholic godfather Philip II, Sidney’s fervent Protestantism and hostility to France were shaped by witnessing the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre slaughter of Huguenots by a mob.

Marriage presented particular challenges for Tudor queens, as it was hard to exercise their regal powers when there were expectations of subservience to their husbands. A richly coloured miniature painting of Mary I (1554), by Hans Eworth, shows the queen holding a rose, suggesting that she is available for marriage. Set against a green velvet background, Mary wears a rust-brown dress, with gold- and jewel-embroidered cuffs. One of several versions of a larger work by Eworth, the portable portrait was possibly sent to Philip II as part of marriage negotiations. Once he had met his bride-to-be in real life, the Spanish king reportedly cursed the painter for producing such a flattering impression.

The large jewelled cross at Mary’s throat, suspended from a choker in matching gems, belonged to her mother, Catherine of Aragon. From adolescence, Mary had been forbidden by Henry VIII to see her mother, even when Catherine was dying. The cross symbolises not only Mary’s religion, but a connection to the mother she was separated from, and celebration of maternal love.

At the Holburne Museum, Great Pulteney Street, Bath, until 8 May. Phone 01225 388569. www.holburne.org

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