Holbein at the Tudor Court: An insighful exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 10 November 2023 – 14 April 2024

Hans Holbein the Younger, a German artist of remarkable talent, made a significant impact on Tudor England during the 16th century. His journey, much like that of the composer Handel a century later, was fueled by ambition and a quest for opportunity. The current exhibition, ‘Holbein at the Tudor Court,’ hosted at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, serves as a captivating chronicle of his time in Tudor England.

Upon arriving in 1526, Holbein’s artistic endeavours began with portraits of influential figures such as Thomas More, showcasing his ability to capture intimate moments with his subjects. The exhibition, meticulously curated and featuring over 100 works drawn from the Royal Collection, provides a chronological narrative of Holbein’s rise to prominence as the king’s painter.

holbein at tudor court collage

Holbein’s artistic prowess extended beyond portraiture to sculpting and various other forms. As King’s Painter, Holbein was commissioned to make portraits to immortalise Henry VIII and his family. Holbein is most famous for the magnificent image he created of Henry VIll in 1537. He showed the king standing full-length, confidently and effortlessly masterful, his power emphasised by a wide stance which commands the space around him. Holbein’s portrait of Henry was painted, life-size, on the wall of the Privy Chamber at Whitehall Palace. The destruction of the mural in 1698 did not diminish its impact. The many surviving copies of Holbein’s portrait of Henry, some of them contemporary, are testament to its impact. He drew and painted three of the king’s wives – Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves – and perhaps also Henry’s fifth, Katherine Howard.

Anne Boleyn drawing by Holbein

Anne Boleyn (c.1500-36) – Black and coloured chalks on pink prepared paper (1532-6). The identity of the woman depicted here has been much debated. Discussion has centred on the sitter’s hair, since Anne was brunette. Holbein typically built up hair with layers of different coloured chalks, as can be seen at the top of the forehead. Close examination of the drawing shows that the chalk is rubbed and the sitter’s hair probably originally appeared darker to match her brown eyes. The inscription, a later copy of a sixteenth-century identification, describes the sitter as Anne Boleyn and this is likely to be one of the few surviving portraits of Henry Vill’s second queen. Anne is shown in informal dress. Perhaps her clothes were updated in the finished portrait, or perhaps this was a private, intimate image for her husband. The final work, which does not survive, may have been a miniature rather than a panel painting.

 

He was sent to Europe to take likenesses of potential wives for Henry as part of marriage negotiations. He made portraits of Henry’s daughter Mary (later Mary I) and son Edward (later Edward VI).

These commissions show how contemporaries valued Holbein for his ability to capture a likeness.

He was sent to paint Anne and Amalia of Cleves in May 1539 when the two women were being considered for marriage to Henry. English ambassadors had not seen the princesses and were nervous ‘whether their images were like to their persons’. Holbein was dispatched to Cleves because he could paint portraits that were considered trustworthy by the English court. His portraits of Anne, who became Henry’s fourth wife, are now in the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Holbein’s artistic influence on the English school is evident, shaping the portrayal of subjects in regal postures reminiscent of the King himself. A striking example is the 1533 portrait of Derich Born, a young German merchant, which exemplifies Holbein’s mastery in capturing the essence of his subjects. The recent conservation of this painting revealed Holbein’s meticulous process of slowly building up the likeness, subtly altering contours to create a sculpted cheek and jawline. This is my favourite artwork in this collection. There’s a room at the entrace of the exhibition dedicated to explaining the techniques used by Holbein to create his work. This section is particularly family-friendly and highly educational. 

1533 portrait of Derich Born by Holbein

1533 portrait of Derich Born showcases Holbein’s mastery in capturing the essence of his subjects

 

Jane Seymour by Holbein collage

On the right: Jane Seymour (1508/9-37) – Black and coloured chalks with pen and ink and green watercolour on pink prepared paper (1536-7). Jane Seymour married Henry VIll on 30 May 1536 and died on 24 October 1537, shortly after giving birth to his son Edward, later Edward VI. Jane’s status as the mother of the future king ensured her portrait was widely circulated, and the sheet shows signs of reuse, with horizontal lines indicating different lengths and a strip of paper added at the bottom to extend the composition. This drawing was the basis for the depiction of Jane in the Whitehall mural, painted by Holbein in 1537. Painting on the left: Hans Holbein, Jane Seymour, c. 1536-7, oil on panel Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The exhibition also highlights Holbein’s journey to Cleves, where he was entrusted by Henry VIII to portray Anne of Cleves. This exquisite drawing not only showcases Holbein’s artistic skill but also attests to the trust placed in him by the King.

Central to the exhibit are over 40 of Holbein’s portrait drawings, crafted during personal sittings, providing an unparalleled glimpse into the lives of key figures from Henry VIII’s court, including Jane Seymour and Sir Thomas More. The inclusion of preparatory drawings alongside finished paintings offers visitors a unique opportunity to appreciate Holbein’s nuanced approach to portraiture, observing the smallest details that breathe life into his subjects.

The exhibition also underscores Holbein’s lasting impact on later Tudor artists, with figures like Hans Eworth and Nicholas Hilliard finding inspiration in his work. Holbein’s legacy endures as the preeminent image-maker of the Tudor court, his portraits sought after, copied, and admired for centuries. 

Holbein at the Tudor Court: An insighful exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 10 November 2023 – 14 April 2024

To delve into this insightful retrospective collection, visit The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from November 10, 2023, to April 14, 2024. For more information and tickets, please visit www.rct.uk. The Queen’s Gallery is open Thursday to Monday, closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The accompanying publication is available at Royal Collection Trust shops and www.rct.uk/shop.

 

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