The Queen’s Collection of drawings and miniatures by Holbein are currently on show at the National Gallery. Ann Hamlyn takes at look at a portrait of Tudor life.
lfyou‘re in the environs of the Mound in Edinburgh over the next couple of months. don‘t be surprised to ﬁnd one of the curators outside the front door of the National Gallery clipping the miniature box mazes. These have been set up to make the Tudor court of Henry VIII feel welcome in the Greek Revival edifice of the gallery. Indeed. as Timothy Clifford. the National Galleries' director points out. the ghosts ofthese illustrious Englishmen and ‘distinguished hooligans‘ may well be feelingjust a little uncomfortable at being resident on what was. for them. enemy soil.
Among the 28 remarkably penetrating and closely observed portrait drawings. faces such as Sir Richard Southwell and Sir George Brooke. give a vivid impression of the manoeuvring and back-stabbing of factions surrounding the king during the reformation period. As if he was some sort of Malia godfather. the familiar features of ‘horizontally challenged' Henry appear only as Solomon in a fascinating miniature of the king receiving the Queen of Sheba. This was an elaborate piece of allegorical ﬂattery. Sheba. personifying the church. pays homage to the king and accepts him as her ruler. Rome is. quite literally. out of the picture and the king is answerable only to God. From a retrospective point of view. it is ironic that the face of Sheba is tumed away from us. as it was Henry’s belief in the disposable nature of his queens that caused all the trouble in the first place.
Hans Holbeln’s Slr Thomas Wyatt
Among these works there is one verifiable portrait
drawing taken from that unfortunate group of women
who married King Henry — Jane Seymour. She was probably the Queen most dearly loved by Henry. and when she died prematurely as a result of providing him with an heir. the king (not usually sentimental about the passage of his relationships) was distraught. Among the portraits of women in the exhibition it is the most individual and unsentimentalised. Her appearance conforms to a contemporary description of a woman ‘of middle stature and no great beauty‘ but she was clearly a strong but modest character worthy of the affections of her ‘difﬁcult‘ husband.
Although impressive. the drawings would not have
i been seen as finished works of art at the time. They
would have been pan of the artist‘s process in making finished paintings and not all of them reached the painted stage. If you look closely at the Sir Thomas More you can see the tiny pin holes through which powder pigment would have been blown to transfer the image onto a panel for painting. Holbein’s portraits are among the most beautiful and compelling of the 16th century and comparable
Han: Holheln’s ﬂoaty Howard, Earl of Surrey
with Leonardo, Raphael and Titian. It is only frustrating that. where a finished portrait does survive (as with the Thomas More), we can not see the works together. However, the four rare and exquisite miniatures in the exhibition display the gorgeous jewel-like colour that Holbein used in all his finished works.
The small scale of the exhibition gives a deceptive impression of the activities of a court artist during the 16th century. Holbein would have designed elaborate decorations for court masks and other celebrations. as well as jewellery. ornaments and weaponry. None of those drawings is left to give a fully accurate impression of what life at court might have been like. But with these likenesses. which have survived so miraculously well in the 450 years since Holbein‘s death. we have been left an remarkable impression of the characters - the ‘hooligans'. clergymen. noble lords. and gentlewomen - who surrounded the infamous King Henry VIII.
Holbein and the Court ane/iry VIII is at the
National Gallery omet/and until 26 Sept.
The List 30 July—l2 August I993 47