It is a once-in-a-generation chance to look into the eyes of dozens of Tudor courtiers who seem so real they might blink or cough.
A new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in London is the largest UK show of art by Hans Holbein the Younger in over 15 years. It features 50 works by the 16th-century German artist in the Royal Collection, most of which are not normally displayed.
Central to Holbein at the Tudor Court are over 40 of Holbein’s intimate portrait drawings of the English royal family, nobility and gentry. Drawn from life, in preparation for paintings that are mostly lost, the closely observed studies arguably bring viewers as near as they will ever get to meeting the personalities of Henry VIII’s circle.
Kate Heard, the exhibition’s curator, said: “Holbein’s unparalleled ability to capture the essence of his subjects still astonishes nearly 500 years later. These drawings cannot be on permanent display for conservation reasons, so this is an exceptional opportunity for visitors to see for themselves the exquisite skill that made Holbein one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived.
“You cannot understand Holbein’s work in Tudor England without the Royal Collection. It is one of the great collections of Holbein’s art and includes the majority of the portrait drawings made by Holbein of members of the Tudor court. Those, we think, were acquired by Henry VIII on Holbein’s death in 1543, so they have an incredible provenance back to the Tudor period.”
The highlights include drawings for a lost painting of the family of Sir Thomas More, the lawyer and humanist who was one of Holbein’s first patrons when he came to England from Basel in 1526, aged about 29. The realism of the portraits is exemplified in the way Holbein manipulates chalk to depict broken veins in the cheeks of Sir John More, the elderly father of Thomas. Heard said: “These are preparatory drawings that were not intended as works of art to be hung on the wall, but they are beautiful works of art.”
Subsequent commissions illustrate how Holbein’s reputation spread through different elite cliques as more people heard about, saw and coveted his work. Several sitters, including the leading courtier Sir Henry Guildford and the writers Sir Thomas and Lady Elyot, probably met Holbein through friendships with Sir Thomas More. And a large number lived in East Anglia, including the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and their relatives and friends.
Sir Thomas More was executed in 1535 after refusing to take an oath that rejected papal authority over English church affairs. He was canonised 400 years later. After his death, Holbein’s star continued to rise and, in 1536, he was appointed King’s Painter, on a salary of £30 a year. In this role he didn’t only paint portraits, but produced designs for metalwork, book illustrations, jewellery and weapons. Today he is most famous for the swaggering image of Henry VIII that he created in 1537. The life-size mural at Whitehall Palace was destroyed in a fire of 1698, but is recalled in numerous surviving copies.
What had drawn Holbein to England and Henry’s court? Heard said: “The Tudor court that Holbein would have found was already full of European art — Flemish, Spanish and French paintings, Italian sculpture. The Tudors were a young dynasty. They had just won the throne in the Battle of Bosworth and were trying to establish their authority both within the country and on the European stage. And they did that through demonstrations of magnificence and employing European artists… When Holbein came to England he found a court that was open to European culture, that was really interested in in the variety of art that it could discover. That might have might have been one of the reasons he came.”
The royal portraits in the exhibition are testament to his success and tremendous reputation. They include a 1536-7 drawing of Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour. Heard said: “You’ll see it’s quite rubbed and has lines running through it. That’s because Jane Seymour was the mother of the future king Edward VI. And so that drawing was used again and again in Holbein’s studio to make more and more portraits.”
There is also a drawing considered “likely” to be of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, depicted in informal dress around 1532-6. Given its intimacy, Heard suggests it may have been a preparatory drawing for a miniature that was intended to be viewed privately by her husband.
A number of Anne’s friends and relatives were immortalised by Holbein. These include her friend Thomas Wyatt, the poet. He was accused of committing adultery with her, but spared when she and her other alleged lovers were executed. A portrait of Anne’s cousin Mary Shelton, another poet and a possible mistress of the king, is one of the most meticulously worked of all Holbein’s drawings.
Holbein didn’t always have the luxury of such patient sitters. A portrait of young Prince Edward appears to have only the minimum of lines necessary to gain a likeness. It is likely that the one-year-old would not stay still.
Many of the drawings carry written reminders in English or German of details to be included in the final paintings. For example, Holbein makes sure to note the yellowish tinge in the eyes of Richard Southwell, a notoriously duplicitous man and pardoned murderer who was one of the king’s close advisers.
In a few cases — those of Sir Henry Guildford, William Reskimer and Lady Audley — the finished painting is in the Royal Collection and visitors can see the drawing and painting side by side to get a feel for Holbein’s process. The painting of Lady Audley is one of several miniatures that show he was as capable working in the tiny format as at full size.
The exhibition gives other insights into the artist’s methods. A drawing of Sir Thomas More is displayed in such a way that viewers can see pin holes tracing the lines of his face. Holbein would have made holes through this drawing and a second, blank sheet and could have pushed black chalk dust through the holes in the second sheet onto a panel, to reproduce the lines.
For all his realism, comparisons between Holbein’s sketches and paintings make it clear that he sometimes made subtle, flattering alterations when he transferred drawings from paper to panel. This is evident in the lengthening and thinning of Sir Henry Guildford’s profile, giving him a more elegant and imposing appearance.
One of the exhibition’s most striking portraits is of Derich Born, a 23-year-old German merchant in London. Recent conservation undertaken in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute shows how Holbein repeatedly altered the contours of Born’s rounded face to give him a more chiselled, mature appearance. The removal of old varnish and overpaint also revealed a thumbprint — probably Holbein’s — at the edge of the panel, suggesting that the paint may have taken longer to dry than he expected.
Heard said: “This commission advertises Derich Born’s confidence as a young merchant making his way in the world. But it also advertises Holbein’s confidence and his brilliance as an artist. He’s resting his arm on a ledge. And on the ledge it says, ‘If you added a voice, this would be Derich his very self’. So all this portrait needs is a voice for it to step out of the frame and appear alive. Now this is praise that was previously given to [the painter Albrecht] Dürer and it’s Holbein positioning himself as the great artist.
“He was renowned at the time for his portraits appearing lifelike, and they still do. You can look at each of them in the eyes and feel you could talk to them. It’s a wonderful way to end the exhibition, this idea of Holbein’s genius and brilliance celebrated by his contemporaries and celebrated today.”
The exhibition doesn’t only feature Holbein’s art but also dozens of other artworks and artefacts that illustrate the historical and cultural backdrop. These range from one of Henry VIII’s few surviving devotional paintings — a Virgin and Child probably by Goswijn van der Weyden — to the king’s outsized armour, usually held at Windsor Castle.
The exhibition is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from November 10, 2023 to April 14, 2024. Visitor and ticket information is available at the Royal Collection Trust website. The photograph at the top of the article shows a portrait thought to be of Anne Boleyn, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Photo: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023