Holbein's portraits of Tudor Court revealed in superb exhibition
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Arts Correspondent
Above: Hans Holbein the Younger, Elizabeth, Lady Vaux, c.1535
Huge personalities from the Tudor Court are transformed by one of the all-time great artists, Hans Holbein, into unforgettable portraits that take us into that vivid world of patronage, power and intrigue, are currently, gloriously on show at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
Who can forget the characters in Holbein’s portraits, captured in sublime drawings by means of a few black chalk lines and subtle touches of colour, and in oil paintings by glorious depths of colour and detail? For many, they define what we imagine when we think of the Tudors.
The German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8–1543) who, figuratively speaking, is said to have brought Renaissance painting to Britain from continental Europe in the 16th century, is one of the few artists who was extremely successful in his own day and whose work remains just as appealing today.
Take for example, the group of Holbein’s sketches of members of the family of the lawyer Sir Thomas More at the end of the first gallery. I had first seen them over 15 years ago, and now I had that pleasure again: Holbein’s beautiful, soft, seemingly simple portrait sketches –preparatory drawings, never meant for display – capturing essential features of his subjects’ personalities for a larger family portrait (sadly, the finished painting has not survived). In Holbein’s hand the subjects’ distinct features are skilfully woven into almost living breathing beings. For instance, More’s father, complete with rather unforgiving stare, has his broken veins conveyed in mottled chalk on the old man’s cheeks; whereas on Thomas More’s cheeks touches of black chalk hint at stubble.
Above: Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir John More, 1526–7
Coming from Basel to England in 1526, Holbein initially worked under More’s patronage, having been recommended to him by his friend the Humanist scholar Erasmus, Holbein’s previous patron in Basel. After a brief interlude back in Basel, Holbein returned in 1532 to stay in London until his death in 1543.
During this latter period Holbein worked his way up to the very top of society, painting nobles and their families, archbishops, statesmen, soldiers and merchants, eventually rising to the ultimate position for an artist in Tudor England: King Henry VIII’s court painter (a position he held until his death 1535–43).
Now, he was painting the key figures of the Tudor court, including portraits of the King’s wives and children, as well as Henry himself. In the exhibition chalk drawings of Anne Boleyn (this portrait is disputed: does it really depict Henry VIII's second wife?) and Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife, and mother of Edward), Prince Edward (later Edward VI), Princess Mary (later Mary I), sit alongside oil paintings of figures like the assertive and clearly powerful Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, and dynastic portraits of other family members – the Howards were one of the most powerful families in Tudor England – as well as paintings of others like that of Derich Born, a merchant from Cologne, and the only fully worked up in colour drawing, that of John Godsalve, Clerk of the Signet.
Happily, the show encourages us to look closely at the tiny details of these works: details that make Holbein’s portraits so special, so lifelike. In the labelling, audio guide and the adjacent education rooms, the curator goes to lengths to help us discover how the artist manipulated his materials to achieve his results – from mottled chalk reflecting the broken veins, as mentioned, to the smallest touches of white heightening used to suggest the luminosity of a woman’s skin (Elizabeth, Lady Vaux). Interestingly too, we learn of Holbein struggles to capture some profiles, such as courtier William Reskimer’s nose, or how he made several attempts to position the iris in Elizabeth, Lady Audley’s left eye.
Above: The preparatory drawing of William Reskimer, c.1536–9, sits next to the finished portrait
The portrait of William Reskimer, one of the Pages of Henry VIII’s Bedchamber, is one of two preparatory drawings shown here alongside its resulting painting. So, we see the long red-bearded Reskimer in full colour in the oil on panel painting, sitting in profile against a background of vines and gently, if rather awkwardly twisting his hands; whereas in the portrait sketch the focus is on Reskimer’s head, with Holbein using coloured chalks along with a touch of greenish watercolour to denote the eye. X-ray examination has shown that Holbein resolved his struggles with the nose by trying out different lines on the drawing, while working on the panel.
The portrait of Mary Shelton, later Lady Heveningham, is one of the most meticulously worked and beautiful drawings on view. A cousin of Anne Boleyn – and apparently part of her lively young circle – she as a friend of poets such as Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and was herself a poet, one of the compilers of a significant anthology of Tudor verse.
This is a superb exhibition. It features over 100 works from the Royal Collection, including drawings, paintings and miniatures, and is the largest group of Holbein’s works exhibited in over 30 years. Again, and again it allows us to admire Holbein’s masterly use of coloured chalk on pink paper in his drawings, and see how Holbein’s famous, now classic portrait of Henry VIII made 1537 – Henry’s wide stance commanding the space – was itself admired, copied and adapted in the 16th century.
Above: Nicholas Hilliard, Henry VIII, c.1600
Kate Heard, curator of Holbein at the Tudor Court, said: ‘Holbein’s brilliant success at the Tudor court was due to his mastery of his art. His exquisite drawings and paintings were made using the techniques he had learned as an apprentice, but his impressive skill with these traditional materials saw him celebrated by contemporaries, as he is still celebrated today. It is easy to understand why the men and women of Henry VIII’s court sought a portrait from Holbein as a mark of success, a record of a loved one or a gift between friends.
‘Looking closely at the pieces in the exhibition, we can see Holbein at work, refining and altering as he goes to achieve the most perfect image that he can create. Close examination and technical analysis has allowed us to understand more about these endlessly fascinating works, which reveal so much about Holbein and his work as an artist in Tudor England.’
The exhibition is a real pleasure.
Holbein at the Tudor Court
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London
Showing until: 14 April 2024.
For more information, see: www.rct.uk