Holbein at the Tudor Court is an exhibition of social history as much as it is an exhibition of art. The art on show is, of course, stunning, as Holbein is a great Renaissance artist and, as curator Kate Heard notes, possessed an ‘unparalleled ability to capture the essence of his subjects’ that ‘still astonishes nearly 500 years later’.
This ability is seen, in particular, through more than 40 intimate portrait drawings of the royal family and the Tudor nobility, which imbue their subjects with a remarkable lifelike quality that brings the viewer as close as they will ever come to the men and women of Henry VIII’s court, from Jane Seymour to Sir Thomas More. Drawn from life during personal sittings in preparation for finished paintings, these closely observed studies “cannot be on permanent display for conservation reasons”, making this exhibition “an exceptional opportunity for visitors to see for themselves the exquisite skill that made Holbein one of the greatest draughtsmen who ever lived”.
The exhibition also tells the story of Holbein’s time in England, navigating the shifting sands of religious reform and political intrigue to rise to the position of King’s painter and create the enduring images of Henry VIII and his circle that we know today. This is where the social history aspect of this exhibition comes into play, enabling us to learn about the political and religious landscape of his day.
Holbein lived out his life in the changed and changing circumstances of the Reformation, which caused a shifting of political tectonic plates alongside the theological and ecclesiastical. He first came to England in 1526 but had been undertaking work for the Catholic Church from Switzerland before his arrival. The exhibition begins with a ‘Noli me Tangere’ painting, which, although painted in England, is typical of his work while based in Basel. In addition, we also see examples of book illustration work, again primarily religious, undertaken before his arrival in England, which influenced the work of later illustrators.
Holbein was a true Renaissance artist in that his work extended far beyond painting – his paintings themselves ranged from miniatures to murals – to embrace designs for books, metalwork (armour, jewellery, tableware, weapons) and sculpture. As King’s Painter, he collaborated with goldsmiths, jewellers, clock makers, and scientific instrument makers. He was one of many artists and designers offering their talents in service to those with wealth, both in the emerging middle classes and among the nobility. The great prizes were still to be found when working for the Church or for royalty, although, from this point onwards, the influence and patronage of the Church very slowly began to wane.
Although he came to Britain bringing a letter of recommendation from Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch Christian humanist, Catholic theologian, and philosopher, and, on arrival, his first patrons were among the religious elite of the time, including More (who was later made a saint) and William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, Holbein reflects this change in moving from predominantly religious work in Basel to predominantly portrait-based commissions in England. He is one of the first great portrait artists, amazing viewers with the realism of his work and creating a role for artists which was to reach its apotheosis with the work of Rembrandt, who had a seemingly magical ability to capture the spirit of individuals in every brush stroke laid upon the canvas. Holbein was himself praised as “incomparable” and a “wonderful artist”, with it being reckoned that his portraits only needed a voice to appear alive. Henry VII probably acquired the portrait drawings which form the core of this exhibition after the artist’s death and were originally in an album or “great booke of Pictures” from which they were removed in the early eighteenth century by Queen Caroline, wife of George II, for display at Richmond and Kensington Palaces.
Portraits, at this time, were made to cement friendships, mark marriages and the birth of children, or assert status and prosperity. This collection of portrait drawings of lords, ladies, gentlemen and gentlewomen illustrates the great and good of Tudor society and, in particular, of the court, but also illustrates the difficulty of maintaining position and privilege when this depended on the whims of a changeable and increasingly erratic monarch. Some, like Richard Southwell, were Machiavellian politicians whose ruthlessness enabled them to maintain their position, and Holbein captures well the inherent arrogance and insouciance of Southwell and his ilk. Others like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, found themselves on a revolving wheel of fortune. They were part of a lively intellectual circle around Anne Boleyn that included several poets.
We catch a sense of what was involved in seeking or finding a patron from a letter displayed in the exhibition, which was sent to Henry VIII by Giovanbattista, a painter from Ravenna. He wrote to “the Most Serene and Glorious King”, expressing the “immense liberality and utmost gratitude” with which “everyone universally praises” the King before then offering his services and those of colleagues to that same King. The exhibition includes examples of work by those who influenced Holbein, those who were his peers and those whom Holbein influenced in order to build up a picture of the range of work held by Henry VIII, in particular, as illustration of changes in the role and work of artists brought about through the Reformation and its political and social ramifications.
As is noted in the publicity for the exhibition, through paintings and decorative arts ranging from a Brussels tapestry to jewel-like miniatures, ‘Holbein at the Tudor Court’ demonstrates the vibrant international artistic culture that Holbein found on his arrival in England and to which he made an immeasurable contribution. From Hans Eworth to Nicholas Hilliard, Tudor artists continued to look to Holbein for inspiration after his death, cementing his reputation as the image-maker of the Tudor court. His work brings us face-to-face with some of the most famous people of 16th-century England and inspired the next generation of artists in their depictions of a new generation of Tudor royals.
‘Holbein at the Tudor Court’ is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 10 November 2023 – 14 April 2024.