Hans Holbein at the Tudor Court
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
10th November 2023 – 14th April 2024
The Royal Collection Trust is the holder of one of the world most comprehensive collections of work by the German painter, Hans Holbein the Younger. This exhibition explores work created for members of the Tudor court and others during the time he was living in England through his drawings, paintings, miniatures and book illustrations.
As you enter the exhibition you are face to face with his painting, ‘Noli me Tangere’ (Touch me not) where Mary Magdalene visits the tomb of the risen Christ on the first East Sunday and finds it empty. Fresh as the day it was finished this masterpiece was painted c1526-28 on oak, but for whom is not known. Holbein had arrived in the mid 1520s with letters of introduction from Erasmus of Rotterdam introducing him to Sir Thomas More. By way of demonstrating his talent, Holbein presented More with a portrait of More’s scholarly friend.
Holbein was not the first foreign artist to arrive at the new Tudor court. We know from surviving works, and of course the original accounts, that Italian and Flemish artists and sculptors were keen to take advantage of the Henry VII’s need to establish the Tudor Dynasty as a serious court that were here to stay. By commissioning various works by artists such as the sculptor Guido Mazzoni, the illuminator Lucas Horenbout who had come with his father, mother and sister in about 1520/21, Flemish stained glass painters and many more, a sophisticated and decorated court began to emerge. However, Holbein was the best of these arrivals and right from the start of his career in England, was considered a genius.
There are examples of works by some of these artists held in the collection that demonstrate the artistic world Holbein would come to dominate before and after his official appointment as king’s painter. The breadth of his oeuvre ranges from designs he created when in Basle for the frontispieces of books published by Johannes Froben and now in the royal collection, to designs of swords, plate such as Jane Seymour’s cup (sadly melted down in 1625), a cup and cover – all copied from now original designs now lost, and produced as engravings by the 17th century artist and engraver, Wenceslas Hollar.
Most engaging are Holbein’s preparatory sketches of various sitters. The explanatory plaque on the wall at the entrance to the event describes how Holbein’s drawings were in a book probably acquired by Henry VIII shortly after the artist’s death in 1543 and are recorded as being in Whitehall in 1547. Not all 80 are displayed and those not in this exhibition together with those that are, form the original core of Holbein’s work in the royal collection. A further seven completed paintings and four miniatures have been acquired subsequently. The various sitters of these sketches were identified where possible by Sir John Cheke, tutor to Edward VI and since Cheke would have known these individuals, we can be sure that the name given is correct. It was not until the reign of George II that the names were written on the individual portraits, which was when Queen Caroline had them taken out of the original binding, framed and hung on the walls of Richmond and Kensington Palace.
Not only are these sketches exquisite works in themselves and form a large part of the exhibition, in a side room the viewer is taken through Holbein’s creative process demonstrating how he took these preliminary sketches and turned them into the completed portrait. To give you an idea of how this was done the RCT have a wonderful link. https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/Trails/holbein-in-the-royal-collection/holbeins-portrait-drawings
In the room showing Holbein’s early work, Sir Henry Guildford’s portrait (RCIN 400046) sits alongside the framed portrait. Guildford was the king’s Comptroller of the Household and employed Holbein to decorate the temporary banqueting hall to celebrate the 1527 ratification of the Treaty of Westminster. We also have the sketches of the various members of the family of Sir Thomas More in this room and Mary Shelton one of the women responsible for the Devonshire manuscript. These sketches are my favourite as this is Holbein’s first observation of the person before him and have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that is missing from the finished portrait.
Moving into the largest room, among the exhibits there is a sketch labelled Anne Boleyn (RCIN 912189).
The woman is wearing a coif suggesting it is an intimate sketch. Just why and when Holbein did it is another matter. If this were a sketch of Anne Boleyn as labelled, in the past I have wondered that perhaps Holbein was one of those at The Tower that fatal May morning in 1536. Did she wear a fur lined mantel so she would not shiver either with cold or fear? Was this Holbein’s quick sketch capturing Anne’s final moments after she had removed her gable hood we know she wore that morning? Was a visual record ordered by Cromwell – perhaps! I admit this is speculation, but equally why not? After all Anne’s execution was the first of an anointed queen on English soil and there are the sketched records of who sat where at the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots now held in the British Library.
However, the question of the woman’s identity has now been finally settled, but either visit the exhibition and/or buy the catalogue (it is beautiful) to find out.
Apart from members of the royal court Holbein painted portraits of the less exalted people he knew and those of his fellow Germans living in London. These men were merchants of the Hanseatic League. These merchants occupied the Stiljard situated approximately where Cannon Street train station is today. Holbein’s portrait of Derich Born, now fully restored, is a staggeringly real rendition of the man. The Latin inscription on the lower edge of the stone plinth on which Born rests his arm states that if you added a voice the sitter would tell you who he was. It also tells us that it is 1533 and Born is 23 years old). His portrait of Hans of Antwerp has undergone substantial conservation. For those interested in how the conservationists restored this work from the dilapidated state it was in, follow the link https://www.rct.uk/collection/conservation/conserving-holbeins-hans-of-antwerp
Holbein’s influence on later artists is best demonstrated by the words of Nicholas Hilliard (born three years after Holbein’s death). When Hilliard sat down to draft his treatise in 1598 he stated that he took Holbein as his inspiration. We can see this clearly in his four miniatures of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI and the queen who finally gave Henry VIII his much longed for heir, Jane Seymour. Painted in 1600 to commemorate the Battle of Bosworth, these four were once mounted altogether in a gilded box (now lost) that had the battle painted on the lid. It is conceivable that Hilliard had access to the Holbein drawings of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour that we know were in the royal collection by 1547 as well as a portrait of the teenage Edward VI probably by Holbein’s replacement, William Scrots. In order to paint the miniature of Henry VII, he may have also had access to the mural Holbein had painted in the king’s private apartments in Whitehall palace destroyed in the fire of 1698. Today we know this mural by the copy painted by Remegius van Leemput (RCIN 405750) in 1667. Hilliard’s career was as Queen Elizabeth’s favourite painter ‘in little’ and responsible for the many miniature portraits she gave as diplomat gifts or tokens of royal favour. More importantly, he was England’s first artist with an international reputation, but was not quite as internationally renowned as Holbein.
From our brief immersion in the world that Holbein dominated we get the flavour of the glamour and display of the Tudor court in the first half of the 16th century. Even after his death in November 1543 Holbein’s fame did not fade like many other artists, and neither has it faded over the subsequent centuries. We still wonder at his ability to render portraits that are so real you feel the sitter will suddenly engage you in conversation. We can only imagine his designs for gold and silver plate and other elements necessary to make a sumptuous and grand court necessary to impress visiting ambassadors, diplomats and other foreign worthies. Made from gold and silver and encrusted with precious gems and pearls, these must have been spectacular.
The exhibition opened Friday 10th November and runs until 14th April, 2024. It is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A ticket costs £19, which some might think is a lot for a single exhibition, but if you sign it and get your ticket date stamped you have twelve month access to the three exhibitions the Queen’s Gallery puts on each year. Even though I have already had the privilege of visiting the gallery I shall be returning and bringing friends with me. There are various events providing extra insight into Holbein’s world. These fill up very fast, so don’t dawdle if you fancy attending any of these. Scroll down until you get to the events section. https://www.rct.uk/whatson/event/1091494/Holbein-at-the-Tudor-Court
It’s not every day we have access to one of the most important collections of Holbein’s works that bring the Tudor Dynasty and other members of the royal court to life.