Holbein's Henry VIII

drawing of the king, similar to the Walker's painting

Cartoon showing Henry VIII and Henry VII, 1537, Hans Holbein, ink and wash on paper sheets mounted on canvas, 257.8 x 137.1cm, National Portrait Gallery, London

When Whitehall Palace burnt down in 1698 it took with it one of the most stunning and definitive depictions of an English monarch ever created. Holbein’s picture of Henry VIII was painted on to the walls of one of the palace’s state rooms in 1537.

Surviving copies of the painting reveal Holbein’s unique and powerful vision of this legendary Tudor king.

The portrait shows Henry in a strong and authoritative pose, his barrel-chested figure, feet planted firmly apart, glaring with a bullying authority. His clenched hands are studded with large gems and frame his protruding, assertive codpiece.

Henry was 46 at the time the Whitehall mural was painted, yet in the picture the king appears young, elegant and healthy. Although he does not wear a crown, or hold an orb or sceptre, his imposing stance suggests that he is a king at the peak of his powers. He looks down at the viewer, one hand clutching his dagger, giving the impression of being ready for action at a moment’s notice.

Holbein deliberately distorted the proportions of Henry’s physique to create an even more imposing figure. His legs have been elongated to make him look slimmer and more muscular – a surviving piece of armour made for Henry in 1540 proves that his legs were noticeably shorter in reality.

The rich colours, jewels and fabrics in the picture emphasise Henry’s wealth and influence, adding to the impression of a formidable king.

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Exhibition sponsor

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management.