Sunday, 20 September 2009





It is a paradox of a sort that the only fully authentic Holbein painting of King Henry VIII of England should now reside in Madrid, in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. It left Britain as late as 1933, sold by Earl Spencer, grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales. Holbein is, after all, the author of what is perhaps the most iconic and formidable of all British royal images. Fittingly, the Thyssen-Bornemizsa portrait adorns the cover of the catalogue that accompanies the ĎHolbein in Englandí exhibition now on show at Tate Britain in London.


Just as much as Henry himself, Holbein was a child of the Reformation. When he first came to England in 1526 he had painted very few portraits, though we now think of him as being chiefly a portrait painter. Born in Augsburg, he was now a citizen of Basel, where he had spent a successful ten years as a religious painter, a designer of stained glass, and as a maker of designs for goldsmiths. He had also designed prints, since Basel was a centre of the European printing industry. However, thanks to the gathering force of the Reformation, patronage for religious art in German speaking lands was already starting to dry up. Holbein hoped to make his fortune in a country that was increasingly wealthy, but which possessed very few painters of any quality and certainly none as gifted as himself.


Holbeinís sponsor was the leading Basel humanist Erasmus, who recommended the painter to his friend and collaborator Sir Thomas More, an influential minister in Henryís government.  More was immediately impressed by Holbeinís talent, and the most important commission that the painter received on this first visit was for a life-size group portrait of More and his family, containing ten full-length figures. The painting is now lost, but the composition drawing for it survives, as do portrait studies of the individuals represented.


Fascinatingly, the composition turns out to be modeled on traditional representations of the Virgin and her extended family, with More taking the place of the Virgin, while his elderly father, Sir John, takes the place assigned to the Virginís mother, St .Anne.


The wonderful portrait drawings associated with the commission survive, like the majority of Holbeinís portrait drawings, in the English Royal Collection, and it is these that form the backbone of the exhibition. The catalogue is particularly good at analyzing the subtle shifts of emphasis that Holbein employs when seeking to give life to his sitters. In a full-face likeness of the aristocratic poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, for instance, one side of the face is subtly shadowed, and the eye on that side is equally subtly emphasized.


Holbeinís first visit to London lasted only two years. He had to return to Basel in order to retain his citizenship there. He soon discovered that things were not getting better at home, as the religious storm in Germany and Switzerland increased. In 1532 he returned to London for good. Though More had fallen from favor, because of his opposition, on religious grounds, to Henry VIIIís divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn [his fall began in 1530 and he was executed in 1535], Holbein had no lack of patrons.


These patrons came chiefly from two very different groups Ė the royal court, and German merchants living and working in London. His portraits of the members of the royal family are surprisingly few. In addition to the Madrid portrait of the king, there is a large fragment of the cartoon prepared for a mural in Whitehall Palace, destroyed when the Palace burned down in 1698. This shows the king full length, in a straddle-legged pose that played a large part in defining his personality for posterity. Most later images of him are based on Holbeinís invention. In addition there are portraits of Henryís third wife, Jane Seymour, of his long-awaited heir, Edward Prince of Wales, later Edward VI, and of Anne of Cleves, Henryís fourth wife, whom the king summarily rejected as too ugly. Holbein painted a portrait miniature of her that played a part in the marriage negotiations, plus another likeness [not in the Tate Britain show] that is now in the Louvre. In both of these Anne seems considerably more alluring than either her predecessor Jane Seymour or her successor Catherine Howard, the presumed subject of another portrait miniature. The images of those who thronged the court, and often paid with their lives for their proximity to power, are quite numerous.


At first glance the portraits of Holbeinís middle-class Germans seem stylistically much the same as those of people from the court, but the more one looks the more clearly differences appear. The merchant portraits go all out for realism, or at least for a feeling of strong physical presence, often achieved by slightly enlarging the head of the sitter. The courtier images are more refined, and less insistent. In them one finds the seeds to the hieratic, non-realistic likenesses that were to be made of Henry VIIIís daughter Elizabeth, when she finally reached the throne.


The portraits in the show are supplemented by examples of Holbeinís rather fussy drawings for goldsmithís work, and by a few oddities, such as two rather unsuccessful religious paintings, made in an English context. These are as clumsy and awkward as the portraits are sophisticated.


It is a fascinating coincidence that London currently has on view exhibitions devoted to two of the greatest portrait painters who ever lived, Holbein and Velazquez. Their means of achieving a likeness are radically different. What they share, despite this, is an astonishingly penetrating eye for human character. In both cases, you feel you have been brought into the very presence of the sitter.


Tate Britain, London, until 7 January 2007




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