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EXHIBITION REVIEW: Holbein at the Tudor Court

Considered one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century, Hans Holbein was born in Augsburg, Germany. Initially, he carved out a career in Basel, the centre of Renaissance publishing, but it’s his time in England that is most intriguing and the focus of the Royal Collection’s exhibition. 

Holbein’s time in the Tudor Court can be split into two clearly defined periods: 

  • His first period runs from 1526 to 1528 and is centralised around Thomas More and his humanist circle; and
  • His second takes him from 1532 and 1540 and is connected to Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. 

The More Period

After painting his portrait of Desiderius Erasmus in 1523, Holbein became an international artist. He first attempted to seek work in France, but Erasmus recommended him to his friend Thomas More in England instead. Holbein made it to England in 1526 and was immediately welcomed into More’s humanist circle. For them, he created an incredible array of portraits: 

“Your painter, my dearest Erasmus, is a wonderful artist.”

Thomas More to Desiderius Erasmus

Holbein’s portraits included: 

  • William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury;
  • Nicholas Kratzer, a Bavarian astronomer and mathematician who tutored the More children; and
  • Sir Henry Guildford, serving as Master of the Horse to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. 

He also painted a Noli me Tangere, and a panorama of the siege of Thérouanne for the visit of French ambassadors.

In 1528, Holbein returned to Basel for a period of four years. In the time he had been away, Basel had become turbulent, and iconoclasm had banned imagery in churches. Some of Holbein’s religious art was likely destroyed, but items such as the organ shutters he had designed for the Basel Minister were saved. The chaos in Basel and the shift in perspective about religious imagery likely reduced the levels of patronage, prompting Holbein’s return to England.  

The Boleyn-Cromwell Period

While Holbein was struggling in Basel, More had climbed the hierarchical ladder. When Holbein returned to England in 1532, More was the Lord High Chancellor of England. More quickly fell from Henry VIII’s grace, however, and Holbein distanced himself from the humanist and his circle. After a fifteen-minute trial on 6th July 1535, More was executed for his refusal to acknowledge King Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England, proclaiming himself “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” 

Holbein was now under the patronage of Thomas Cromwell – the King’s secretary from 1534, who had helped engineer the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon – and Anne Boleyn. For Anne Boleyn’s coronation, Holbein was commissioned to paint a street tableau of Mount Parnassus. None of his portraits of the Queen, herself, survive, however, as her presence was purged following her execution for treason, incest, and adultery. There are preparatory drawings which survive, however. 

By 1535, the year of More’s execution, Holbein was the King’s Painter, producing portraits and festive decorations, designs for jewellery and plates and other precious objects. It was in this period he also painted his most famous work, the Ambassadors. Later, he also created the Whitehall Palace mural – which depicted Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York. While the mural itself was destroyed in a fire in 1698, the engravings still exist, and a copy is shared in the exhibition.

The Apelles of our Time

Hans Holbein survived the downfall of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, but the arrest and execution of Cromwell, under charges of heresy and treason, damaged the artist’s career. Though he retained his position as King’s Painter, no patron could fill the shoes of their predecessors. Holbein, instead, occupied himself with private commissions, including pieces for Charles and Henry Brandon, the sons of the King’s friend, Charles Brandon, first Duke of Suffolk. 

Holbein died between October and November 1543, likely from plague or other infection. Nicholas Bourbon, a French court poet and preceptor, dubbed him:

“The Apelles of our time.”  

Over one hundred works have been brought together by the Queen’s Gallery to celebrate this extraordinary artist – the largest collection of Holbein works in thirty years. Drawings, paintings, miniatures, book illustrations, even Henry VIII’s armour, positioned to mirror the portrait by Holbein, making you immediately feel as though the King is watching you intently. 

There’s a tenderness in Holbein’s portraits, with their gentle lines and soft colours. They are, by far, some of the most beautiful sketches I ever seen. 

For more information and to book your ticket to the exhibition, click here

Holbein at the Tudor Court ends on Sunday 14th April. Be sure to check it out, then get in touch and let me know what you think! 

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