Holbein's rich and famous

By T.J. McNamara

Around the Tate Britain in London the face of Henry VIII glares balefully out from posters. As well as knowing he had six wives, most people have an alarming mental image of Henry VIII standing with arms akimbo, feet wide spread, a square, powerful figure glittering in fine fabric and jewellery. It is an image of power and majesty.

The exhibition is Holbein in England and the familiar image derives from a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), the court painter to Henry.

The image itself did not survive. It was burnt in a fire at Whitehall in 1698. A number of replicas made during the lifetime of the king conveyed its force. There is an excellent one in this show as well as the detailed, life-size drawing for the original work.

Holbein was a prolific artist and many portraits of people associated with the court and the time of the Tudor king have survived. They are the largest part of this remarkable exhibition spread across nine rooms. As in the epoch-making exhibition of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci at the Victoria and Albert, a lot of work has been borrowed from the Royal Collections.

The Queen's holdings of drawings are as extensive and valuable as her huge collection of paintings. At Windsor Castle there is an incomparable collection of the preliminary drawings Holbein made of his prominent subjects when they sat for their portraits.

These are done with the simplest of lines but still manage to convey not only the sitters' appearance but also to suggest their characters and personalities.

In this exhibition, the drawings are often matched with the final painting. The jewels of status and the trappings of office often obscure the personality a little in the paintings but they are astonishingly life-like.

The artist was well-established when he made his first visit to Britain in 1526. On his second visit he became officially a denizen of England to avoid fierce laws against foreigners, and he had a second family.

He was born in Augsburg, Germany, but worked mainly in Basle in Switzerland. He was the son of Hans Holbein the Elder, also an accomplished painter. Some characteristic paintings by the father are shown as an introduction to this show. The younger Holbein is remembered for his amazing ability to catch a likeness and for the famous people he portrayed.

Among the most remarkable portrayals are the paintings of Erasmus, the influential scholar who recommended Holbein to the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, and brought him to England. More clashed with the King over religion and politics and lost his head as a consequence but Holbein managed to rise above such troubled waters.

He painted portraits of the King's wives. Included in the show is a painting of the thin-lipped Jane Seymour who died in 1537. There is a superb full-face image of a prospective wife, the lovely Christina of Denmark in her mourning dress. This is a full-length portrait and the dark shape of the costume and the hood that frames the ex-Queen's face makes a striking shape to enclose that charming young woman who narrowly escaped marriage with the King.

The women are much more attractive than the men. There is a singularly lovely yet strong portrait of an unknown woman (Anne Lovell?) who holds a pet squirrel on a tiny chain while a starling perches nearby. The portrait is full of character and the animal and bird are beautifully painted. The work was purchased for the National Gallery for £10 million in 1992. It would now fetch five times that.

The men have leathery, lined faces rendered solemn by the weight of office and, sometimes, by greed and cunning. You can see just such faces in the City of London today as evidence of the truth which Holbein uncompromisingly achieved. One particularly notable portrait is of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, clad in ermine with a rich gold chain about his neck and carrying not one but two staffs of office. A wonderful portrait of the sharp face of Robert Cheseman includes his hawk which, in a way, reinforces both his profile and his nature.

Holbein also painted the shrewd, confident faces of the German Hanseatic merchants in London who imported goods from as far away as India and Asia.

Henry VIII was a Renaissance king: a wrestler in his youth, musician, scholar, totally ruthless and, in his own way, a brilliant ruler.

Equally Holbein was a Renaissance artist. His studio was a centre of design. He not only painted portraits but murals and religious paintings. He designed pageants and jewellery, illustrated books, and made designs for woodcuts.

Among the many drawings is a series of designs for elaborate pendants which shows extraordinary powers of design invention within a basic shape.

The exhibition provides an incomparable opportunity to see Holbein and his working methods and there is an excellent catalogue as a permanent reminder.

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