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Art review: Holbein at the Tudor Court (The King’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace)

16 February 2024

Nicholas Cranfield sees Holbein’s take on the Court of King Henry VIII

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Hans Holbein the Younger, William Reskimer (c.1536-39). More images below and in the gallery

Hans Holbein the Younger, William Reskimer (c.1536-39). More images below and in the gallery

THIRTY years ago, Brian McMaster took over as Director of the Edinburgh Festival. Seemingly blind to the wealth of the visual arts, he scarcely advertised the treasures of the city’s galleries and museums.

A free summer exhibition of some of the most celebrated drawings by the Augsburg-born Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543) in the Scottish National Gallery, which later transferred to Cambridge and then the National Portrait Gallery in London, became the showstopper of the Festival City.

Henry VIII had never been able to subdue Scotland. His reign ended in the disaster of the “Rough Wooing” (1543 to 1547), an attempt to secure a marriage alliance that might have led to the union of crowns. His English troops may have won the battle of Pinkie (after his death), but the chance of Union, which depended on French acquiescence, was lost for the next sixty years.

That celebrated Festival exhibition had some 28 portrait drawings from the Royal Collection at Windsor and several miniatures; with that show, Dr Jane Roberts softly wooed the audience north of the Border, winning respect and honour for an invader who had been much despised in his day.

The exhibition holds more than 50 of Holbein’s works, including paintings and bookplates (such as the 1518 Basel printing of Thomas More’s Utopia) alongside his portrait drawings. It is memorable for the wealth of additional exhibits (all ex-catalogue) that include early-16th-century Flemish paintings, armour, tableware, and one of the Dido and Aeneas tapestry series that Henry bought in 1533 to decorate Whitehall Palace for Anne Boleyn.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir John More (1526-27)

Holbein came to Greenwich from Basel for the first time in 1526, with letters of introduction from Erasmus of Rotterdam (here captured by Quentin Massys in 1517). He was sponsored as an immigrant worker by More, portrait drawings of whose family remain the highlight of the first room.

He stayed in London for just over a year before returning to Switzerland in 1528 to buy property that allowed him to maintain his citizenship there. He was back in London by July 1532, but remained a Swiss citizen till his death in 1543 when he was resident in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London.

That we know what Henry VIII looks like is due largely to Holbein, as there is no surviving tomb effigy for him unlike those of Henry’s parents in Westminster Abbey by the Tuscan sculptor Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528), although in 1527 he had begun to discuss one that would have reworked Wolsey’s grandiose tomb.

None of Henry’s four immediate successors showed any inclination (or time, in the case of Lady Jane Grey) to complete the work, and, after 1649, the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, sold the incomplete effigy for scrap metal as part of his attempt to pay off the troops that had brought him to power. The sarcophagus was re-purposed for Lord Nelson’s monument in St Paul’s Cathedral.

It is in the portrait drawings of Henry’s household officers, his bishops, and the scholars of the day who formed his circle that we see the Tudor Court at work. Instantly recognisable, and much quarried by costume designers and filmmakers today, these are, none the less, almost contemporary faces for us to consider.

Apart from sculpture, such lifelike representations as Holbein’s mimetic realism offered were quite unknown in England at the time, and only later began to influence how native-born artists worked on paper and in oils.

A small painted terracotta bust of a laughing boy (c.1498) helps us to appreciate this shift towards realism, from sculpture to paint and coloured chalk. Created by another Italian sculptor, Guido Mazzoni (d. 1518), it has been in royal ownership since it was made (RCIN 73197). The credibility of the image immediately brings us face to face with a seven-year-old.

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023Hans Holbein the Younger, Anne Boleyn (1532-36)

That same power of observation enlivens the Holbeins that must have appeared revolutionary at the time to English eyes. In portraits of the same sitter in chalks and oils seen side by side, the drawings win out, time and again. The drawing of the Cornishman William Reskimer, for instance, is more benign, his green eyes compassionate and intent, whereas in paint he becomes more distant. In part, this reflects the artist’s practice; drawings rather than paintings were undertaken ad vivum and worked up later, often from the notes that he wrote on the sketches.

Holbein refashioned the image of kingship and celebrated the new courtly identity of the autocratic monarch. Little wonder that a Dutch visitor, Karel van Mander, writing in 1604 about the now lost full-length portrayal of the king in Whitehall Palace, claimed it was “so lifelike that anyone who sees it is afraid”, There is nothing to fear here, although it is sobering to count up how many of Holbein’s sitters were put to death by an increasingly paranoid sovereign who had become violent and megalomaniac.

By royal command, The Queen’s Gallery, where this exhibition opened in November, was renamed The King’s Gallery on 4 December. One hopes that the King, an artist himself, will now reinstate the post of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. Created by his namesake Charles I in 1625, the position was summarily suppressed in 2020.

“Holbein at the Tudor Court” is at The King’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 14 April. www.rct.uk

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