The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics come to Bath
by Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent
King Henry VII by Unknown Netherlandish artist, 1505 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
He’s thinking. He’s shrewd, it seems. The keen intelligence of his eyes, the way he holds his hands on the parapet, tense, at the ready, Plantagenet rose unostentatious but evident; his image is one of careful calculation.
We meet his gaze, there’s a momentary imagined sense of connection, but we cannot know; it’s the nature of portraiture, but here, with these extraordinarily familiar figures – made even more familiar to us today since the publication of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, not to mention innumerable textbooks, films and documentaries on the Tudors – we perhaps unsurprisingly feel there’s a greater chance of reading the personalities, the poses, the accoutrements.
The 1505 portrait of the first Tudor king, King Henry VII, is the earliest portrait in this superb exhibition. Henry’s marriage in 1486 to Elizabeth of York - the white rose of York held gently in spotless hands in her portrait on display - united the dynasties of York and Lancaster, ending the War of the Roses and bringing peace and prosperity to the land.
Next to them, for the first time in this exhibition we meet a still slim King Henry VIII, painted about eleven years after he ascended the throne, and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon (also painted c.1520). An iconic portrait made seventeen years later by Hans Holbein the Younger shows a far broader Henry standing in what became his signature power pose. Made in 1537, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry had by now cut off from the Catholic Church in Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England.
Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1537 © Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council
The portraits fizzle with colour and intent. The Tudors knew the power of portraiture. Under the Tudors it became an effective form of propaganda, explains exhibition curator, Monserrat Pis Marcos, “Commissioning a portrait of the monarch to hang in your stately home in the countryside showed your loyalty to the ruler, or your adherence to one cause or other and, in Tudor times, England was not short of causes to pledge allegiance to.”
The 25 or so works here – painted for the most part by unknown artists, with noted exceptions such as Holbein and Nicholas Hilliard – and loaned mostly from the currently closed National Portrait Gallery – all splendidly displayed on an imperial purple background, demand obeisance. The sitters demand obeisance. For assembled here are not only the Tudors, but their advisers and courtiers, spymasters and adventurers, the movers and shakers of the Tudor world.
Tudor faces (from left to right): Anne Boleyn by Unknown English artist, late 16th century, based on a work of circa 1533-1536 © National Portrait Gallery, London; Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century, based on a work of 1532-1533 © National Portrait Gallery, London; Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London; Sir Thomas More after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century, based on a work of 1527 © National Portrait Gallery, London
The roll call includes the five Tudor monarchs - Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I - their queens (three only of Henry VIII’s for reasons of space or an artwork’s fragility), Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, and other significant figures from the period such as Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, and Thomas Cromwell.
Pis Marcos claims, “This is an unmissable opportunity to get up close and personal with a selection of stunning portraits of some of the most influential characters of the Tudor era and learn about the lights and shadows of their personal lives, as well as their connections at home and abroad.”
I’d agree. In their normal surroundings, these wonderful paintings have so much competition that it can be difficult to resist distraction. Here however, we have time and space to look closely at each portrait, to help explore the stories of this torrid period of religious conflict and political intrigue.
Above, left: Mary, Queen of Scots after Nicholas Hilliard, inscribed 1578 © National Portrait Gallery, London; Right: Queen Mary I by Hans Eworth, 1554 © National Portrait Gallery, London
For instance, we can see for ourselves (or imagine) the steely determination of Sir Thomas Cromwell in a 17th century painting based on a work by Holbein 1532-33; or contrast, in the section on Queenship, a fresh-faced Mary, Queen of Scots in one portrait with a more careworn figure of her after she had been a prisoner for ten years; and above all, how Queen Elizabeth I presents herself to convey her position, power, strengths and identities to her subjects.
Taken on any level this is a great little show. Not only could it serve as a concise Tudor history revision (especially if aided by the National Portrait Gallery’s book on the exhibition), but you also could spend an entire visit examining the sumptuousness of the costumes alone. Particularly Queen Elizabeth I’s, for three iconic representations of the 'Virgin Queen' are on show: the ‘Pelican’, ‘Darnley’ and ‘Armada’ portraits.
Above, left: Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist, 1560 © National Portrait Gallery, London; Right: Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist, circa 1588 © National Portrait Gallery, London .
Elizabeth was notoriously reluctant to sit for portraits. But it is said that the ‘Darnley’ portrait of 1575, which most likely was painted from life, pleased her as it was used as a base for her images for many years. But the beauty of her costume in that portrait scarcely bears comparison to the absolute extravagance of her ensemble in the ‘Armada’ portrait (c.1588) with its exquisite lace, pearls, gemstones and bows. Initially, fleetingly, I mistook the capacious sleeves of the costume she’s draped in for the upholstery of the armchair she was sitting in, so thick and padded and jewel encrusted was it!
For further details of the Holburne exhibition see: https://www.holburne.org/events/the-tudors-passion-power-politics/
After its run at Bath, an expanded exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool opens on 21 May 2022.
The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics
The Holburne Museum
Showing until: 8 May 2022
To book tickets or find out more see https://www.holburne.org/events/the-tudors-passion-power-politics/