Hans Holbein (1497/8 - 1543), Sir Thomas More and His Family 1526-7 © Kunstmuseum Basel. Martin Bülher
Richard Moss goes to Tate Britain for a lesson in art - and in Tudor history.
For the major public galleries in London, Autumn 2006 is shaping up to be the season of the heavy hitters. Velazquéz and Cézanne retrospectives are coming up at the National, Hockney opens soon at the NPG and the Rodin retrospective is already packing them in at the Royal Academy.
But according to Dr Stephen Deucher, Director of Tate Britain, the gallery’s newest exhibition will be the season’s biggest. “I don’t want to sound competitive,” he said of Holbein in England, “but this is the show of them all.”
The exhibition, which runs at Tate Britain from September 28 – January 7 2006, is certainly an important one and probably the last chance to see such a large collection of Holbein’s paintings together – such is their age and fragile condition.
It brings together 38 portrait and subject paintings as well as decorative designs and prints and sketches. The result is an exhibition that demonstrates the range of Holbein’s extraordinary skill and accomplishment as an artist and a remarkably clear window into the world of the Tudors and the cultural life of the court of Henry VIII. It’s also a bit of a masterclass in painting.
It is often said that Holbein was the first great painter to work in England and that his arrival effectively brought the Renaissance in painting from continental Europe to Britain. Looking at the portraiture on show here this is no idle boast.
Hans Holbein (1497/8 - 1543), Sir Thomas More 1526-1527. The Royal Collection © 2006 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
What is remarkable about these portraits is the way they act as ‘photographs’ of the constellation of characters that orbited the Tudor court of the time. A million miles from the stiff and formal portraits of the later medieval period that preceded the rule of Henry Tudor, these portraits are remarkably direct, personal likenesses with inventive feature work that gives the viewer an uncanny sense of being in the presence of the sitter.
There are some big names here too – Anne Boleyn, Queen Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Sir Thomas More – many of them eventually executed by the man who looms largest over the whole exhibition, Henry VIII.
Concentrating on his two periods working in London, 1523 – 1528 and 1532 – 1543, the exhibition also includes a remarkable supporting cast of lesser known characters from the Tudor world including courtiers, diplomats, ladies in waiting, merchants, poets and clerks to the king.
The result is an impressive mix of vivid paintings full of character and poise together with a seemingly endless number of ‘back stories’ that take in great swathes of English history, the reformation, religious persecution and numerous beheadings and betrothals.
Holbein was of course, no stranger to religious turmoil and his decision to seek fame and fortune in England was due in part to the Lutheran religious revolution that was making the job of painting so unpredictable in his native Germany. However, when he first arrived in England it was a staunchly Catholic country, but when he returned in 1532 things were changing.
Hans Holbein (1497/8 - 1543), Henry VIII 1536. © Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid
Following Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, the Act of Supremacy of 1534 asserted Henry’s authority over the English church and its separation with Rome.
That Holbein managed to navigate safely through the murky waters of intrigue in the Tudor court (he eventually succumbed to plague in 1545) was due in no small part to his artistic skill. Many of his sitters were however beheaded at the King’s behest.
Holbein’s glittering career in England began after a portrait of his patron, the German humanist Erasmus, came to the attention of Sir Thomas More. Like Holbein, Erasmus was a Basle resident and it was he who provided some key introductions to important Englishmen of the time.
The Erasmus portrait, which sits in Room one, is full of the detailed illusionistic details that were to become so beloved of the Tudors. One of these pieces of background detail is a book that bears a Latin inscription: “I am Hans Holbein, it’s easier to criticize me than imitate me.” You would be hard pushed to find a more confident signal of intent. Here was an artist determined to make it in England.
And make it he did. In 1527 Holbein began a large-scale painting, on linen, of the family of Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas More and a series of commissions for the King.
Hans Holbein (1497/8 - 1543), Anne of Cleves 1539. © The V & A Picture Library
Lost in a fire during the eighteenth century, the surviving preparatory drawings for the More family portrait are displayed here and include a series of unbelievably fresh portraits of all the sitters.
The easy chalk strokes show how Holbein must have amazed his patrons by demonstrating the great leap from Medieval to Renaissance painting. The drawn portraits of More and Guildford are particularly impressive – full of character, they perfectly capture two purposeful men with their penetrating gazes.
An ink drawing of the final More family composition was sent back to Erasmus as a kind of group photograph. Little did he know that in a few short years this vision of domesticity was to be blown apart by More’s execution (in 1535) for opposing the King’s divorce.
Holbein’s relationship with More was a close one. A first edition of More’s Utopia, here lent by the British Library, sits in a case nearby with its Holbein woodcut frontispiece. But for Holbein, it was the patronage of the King that was of course the key to his success in England.
And it’s the King’s portraits that loom large in the middle of the exhibition. Tate have even managed to reunite Henry with his Queen, Jane Seymour, and the child she died bringing into the world, Henry’s son and heir Edward, Prince of Wales.
It’s powerful stuff. The corpulent Henry fixes us with a steely gaze, wearing a cloth of gold and silver together with ornate jewellery that Holbein probably designed. Real gold was used in this painting, which was clearly designed to impress.
Coming face to face with this and other powerful full length portraits of the King you get a real sense of Henry VIII as a powerful and self satisfied man – a King who has brought prosperity to England and of course secured the services of Holbein, the greatest painter of the day.
Hans Holbein (1497/8 - 1543) Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan 1538 © The National Gallery, London
Henry clearly valued the skill of his painter and despatched him on several occasions to capture the essence of women who had come to his attention as possible brides. In 1538 the painter went to Brussels on one such trip to make a portrait of Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan.
Despite a beautiful full-length portrait on oak, in which the artist took special care to capture the fine features of the Duchess’ face, Henry was not smitten. A lucky escape perhaps?
The King also used his artist as a designer and on the way to the Henry portraits you will find a room full of designs for swords, daggers, fountains, goblets - all in the up to date style of the day - designed specially for banquets at Greenwich and Whitehall Palace.
Holbein’s original design for the left hand side of the Privy Chamber at Whitehall is also here (again, the original is lost), but this large-scale ‘cartoon’ remains as an impressive celebration of the Tudor dynasty – full of Holbein’s now trademark illusionistic Renaissance design.
There are of course further remarkable portraits – dozens of them, both painted and sketched, throughout this exhibition. A portrait of Sir Richard Southwell (1536) shows how Holbein was able to use the subtle transition between the shadows and highlights in silken robes to highlight the qualities in the flesh.
The weary and haggard face of Henry Wyatt (1537), his hands clinging to his crucifix, reveals a man at the centre of Tudor court machinations, while the crumpled walnut face of the archbishop of Canterbury (1527) shows how Holbein was able to capture the essence of his sitters with the merest of simple chalk strokes.
Many of the portraits on display could have been drawn yesterday - one of many reasons why Holbein in England might just turn out to be "the show of them all” in London this autumn.
To coincide with the exhibition, the award-winning online edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is offering a ‘look behind the portraits’ with a free guide to the people who appear in Holbein’s masterly paintings. See the Tate website or log on at www.oxforddnb.com and follow the