Face to face with history
Holbein at the Tudor Court brings the English Renaissance court back to vivid life
By the time he was 33 years old, Richard Southwell had scars. Specifically, he had at least three scars: one in the centre of his forehead, one along the right side of his jaw, and one under his jaw, this last so large as to raise questions how, back in the 1530s, he’d managed to survive the attack that caused it.
Southwell, though, was a lucky man. He’d been in the right place, at the right time and with the right attitude, to make a fortune out of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. While his associates — Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey — fell out of favour and died on the block, Southwell, who testified against all of them, not only survived but flourished.
Most fortunate of all, though, was his decision to commission a portrait from one of the greatest artists ever to have worked in England, Hans Holbein the Younger. Indeed, it’s only due to that portrait and the preparatory drawing for it — the latter, one of more than 50 of the artist’s works featuring in Holbein and the Tudor Court, a magnificent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London — that we know about those scars.
Because Southwell chose to sit for Holbein, we can see him as his contemporaries saw him. Of how many of those who lived before us can we say the same?
Inevitably, we bring our own preconceptions to these images. To us, Southwell looks like a thug. It’s not just the scars — there’s a sort of impassive, self-assured belligerence there that shouts across the ages. Just add a grimy white transit van with an expired MOT, an XL bully, perhaps a few worrying tattoos, and we’d instinctively know to avoid eye contact, stay out of this guy’s way, and definitely not spill his drink.
Yet Southwell was a man of his own time, not ours.
Although he was in some sense one of Henry VIII’s “new men”, Southwell’s family were, like his allies the Boleyns, East Anglian gentry. And while no stranger to bling — armour made for him by the King’s armourer, showy plate for display — Southwell’s possessions included “books of scripture, prophane stories and other lattein authors, and my bookes of law and statue [sic]”.
Like so many who enabled the “reforms” that would, in the end, bring crashing down nearly a thousand years of piety, devotion and artistic achievement, Southwell was a religious conservative.
Holbein’s portraits, in contrast, deliver at least the potential for a sharp shock of Tudor reality
In commissioning his portrait, Southwell must have asked — insisted — that those scars should be prominent. This wasn’t some sort of (Oliver) Cromwellian, “warts and all” performative humility. Rather, it was a boast.
In 1531, six years before the portrait was painted, Southwell had been involved in brawl with Sir William Pennington, a sidekick of Henry VIII’s brother-in-law Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk — in other words, an enemy of the Boleyn faction at court.
Pennington ended up dead. Southwell, for his part, sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey until his allies at court could sort out a pardon. Once again, Southwell had been lucky.
In displaying his scars, then, Southwell was showing us who he was — broadcasting loyalty to his own faction, physical courage, but also the extent to which he was protected in a system in which there was no distinction whatsoever between the personal and the political.
And so it was that Holbein depicted those scars, delicately smudging the coloured chalk around them to make them stand out with his habitual meticulousness, as the badge of gangster-type honour that they were.
These are the glimpses back through time that make Holbein at the Tudor Court unmissable for anyone who cares about art, history or indeed that mythic construct, “The Tudors”, a genre long since unmoored from factual bearings.
From the blithely fictionalised A Man for All Seasons to Hillary Mantel’s slyly tendentious Thomas Cromwell trilogy, with plenty of surreal stops in between (Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the obese, ulcerated Henry VIII, anyone?), the big beasts of Henry VIII’s court never cease to engage us, to the extent that we still employ them to express our own, very different preoccupations.
Holbein’s portraits, in contrast, deliver at least the potential for a sharp shock of Tudor reality. They set us face to face with what the Tudors believed about themselves.
It took a foreigner, apparently, to create the Tudors we now remember.
Born in Augsburg, Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543) made a name for himself as an artist and designer in Basel, before trying his luck at the English court from 1526. Along the way, Holbein picked up — possibly via Jean Clouet — a method of drawing onto prepared paper using coloured chalks and ink.
Once in England, Holbein was swept up by a circle of humanists and reformers centring on Sir Thomas More, stretching to include others courtiers, many from East Anglia. Apart from a return to Basel in 1528-1532, Holbein remained in England, weathering the downfall of various patrons before receiving the ultimate accolade in 1536: appointment as Henry VIII’s own painter. He died in London in 1543, aged about 45 years.
Only a portion of Holbein’s career took place in at the Tudor court. The focus of the current exhibition is very tight. Understandably, it centres on masterpieces held by the Royal Collection Trust — not just Holbein’s work, either, but with items by contemporaries and copyists giving vital context. Henry VIII’s suit of armour, complete with expandable waistline, is weirdly mesmerising.
While the RCT is generous with loans, for conservation reasons Holbein’s drawings cannot remain on permanent display. It is, then, a treat to see so many of them gathered together, backed up with material showing Holbein’s work not only as an artist, but as a designer, illustrator — almost a PR guru. If Henry VIII, who died nearly 500 years ago, remains our most recognisable former king, much of the credit must lie with Holbein’s instinct for a memorable image.
The drawings forming the backbone of the exhibition were clearly treasured in their own right, which is why they survive today. We can spot many famous faces here — Anne Boleyn in (relative) sexy undress, Jane Seymour, Thomas More and his family, the infant Prince Edward. Many of them — unlike Sir Richard Southwell — met early, tragic ends. But those whose stories remain unknown to us are equally compelling.
As everyone who sees them points out, it’s somehow so easy to imagine these men and women transported to our own times, in a way that’s less true of portraits by Mytens or van Dyck. We can, for instance, picture Sir Nicholas Poyntz serving up overpriced flat whites in Shoreditch. Elderly, careworn William Warham could be that old chap who’s always seated in his usual spot in the village pub, exchanging low-key chat with the regulars. Mary Shelton could be that mum at your child’s school who always arrives slightly late for pickup time, generating all sorts of talk.
Well, perhaps all these figures, too, have more complicated, paradoxical backstories than we might immediately imagine.
It’s sometimes said that Holbein’s work is “photographic” — our ultimate praise, so thoroughly have we forgotten the language of human skill.
That, however, is an inversion of the truth. Look at any of these images up close. What stands out is not, as in a photograph, tonal gradation, mechanically achieved, but rather the evidence of wholly subjective decision-making: confident lines, careful hatching, chalk smudged with a wet brush, all calculated to produce an effect.
It’s this, ultimately, that delivers the real shock of intimacy. Staring at these drawings, we’re confronted with a simple fact: Holbein was there in the room with these people — the people themselves, not the myths — chatting with them in his bad English, really scrutinising them, analysing what made them distinctive, deciding what to play down and what to emphasise, his mind alert to the labile politics of court, understanding that he needed to show not only how his sitters looked, but who they were, what they were.
In short, there’s critical intelligence here — not crude verisimilitude, which would look less real. There’s an encounter between human beings.
And that’s what no reproduction, no matter how good, can capture. Holbein was in the room with, say, Southwell — and here we are, standing in the room with this sheet of paper, so fragile yet bearing the weight of history, that was once in the room with them both, as they worked together to create the thing we see before us now.
Admittedly, not everyone feels the magic of this sort of thing, and that’s fine. For them, Holbein at the Tudor Court will simply be an immaculately presented, intelligently curated exhibition. But for those of us who long to draw just a little closer to those actual, unrecoverable Tudor lives, Holbein at the Tudor Court provides an unforgettable experience.
Holbein at the Tudor Court is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 14 April 2024. The Queen’s Gallery is open from Thursday to Monday, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Dr Kate Heard’s catalogue is scholarly, accessible, and extremely well illustrated.
Photographs by Catriona Gilmore via the RCT Press Office
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