This painting is a full length portrait of the English monarch King Henry VIII. It is one of the most recognisable images in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection and is one of the most popular paintings with schools and other groups studying Tudor history.
The Walker portrait is derived from the Whitehall Mural, painted by Hans Holbein in 1537. Hans Holbein worked for Henry VIII from 1532 until his death in 1543. He also worked at court during 1526 – 28. The Whitehall mural depicted Henry VIII, Henry VII and their wives, Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York respectively. It was painted onto the wall of one of the state rooms of Whitehall Palace. The Whitehall mural was probably used as propaganda to reinforce the strength of the Tudor dynasty and Henry VIII’s total authority. The political turmoil of the period and the establishment of Henry VIII’s total rule over both Church and State is the context through which the mural should be viewed. The original Whitehall mural was destroyed in a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698. A faithful copy of the mural by Remigius van Leemput for Charles II provides a useful record of the original as does a surviving cartoon of a section of the mural showing Henry VIII and his father.
Like the original mural, the Walker portrait conveys the immense power and authority of Henry VIII. This is achieved without traditional symbols of royalty such as a crown or sceptre, but instead through Henry VIII’s pose, facial expression and visible symbols of his immense wealth such as his costume and jewellery. Henry VIII’s fatness here is a sign of his power, with his barrel chest and his feet placed firmly apart. His hand hovers near his dagger and he fixes us with his cruel gaze. Today, it is easy to forget the absolute terror that such a portrait would have struck into the hearts of Henry VIII’s subjects.
The Walker portrait was produced by an unknown artist who was familiar with the Whitehall mural. The artist had access to the designs or patterns used by Holbein. This explains the strong similarities between the Walker portrait and the Whitehall mural. Differences between the Walker portrait and Holbein’s original mural relate to the architectural background which is much simplified in the Walker’s version. Also, the artist of the Walker portrait made changes to the composition such as the adding a luxurious curtain on the right of the painting.
The Walker portrait was probably commissioned by a wealthy, high ranking courtier who had access to Henry VIII in his privy chamber. This courtier was familiar with the mural and may have wanted to demonstrate his allegiance to the King. It is possible that the Walker portrait was commissioned by Edward Seymour, the brother of Queen Jane and uncle to Henry VIII’s son and sole male heir. Edward Seymour was head of the powerful Seymour faction at court and following Henry VIII’s death effectively ruled the country between 1547 and 1550 as Protector of young King Edward. The Walker’s portrait was purchased for the gallery in 1945 at auction.