Holbein's legacy

painting of the king

Hans Eworth, 1567?, oil on 5 oak planks, 229.6 x 124.1cm, The Masters, Fellows and Scholars of Trinity College, Cambridge

Holbein’s striking image of Henry VIII has been reproduced and copied many times, influencing art and historical interpretation throughout the centuries.

Part of the original cartoon or drawing for the left-hand side mural survives and is on show at the National Portrait Gallery. The cartoon shows Henry looking in a three-quarter profile view, less aggressive than the final mural in which Henry confronts the viewer face on. The change may have come after he quashed the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace Catholic uprising, emphasising the mural’s triumphant inscription.

There are a small number of known full-length copies of Henry derived from the Whitehall mural, with Walker Art Gallery’s portrait and another from Petworth House sharing visual elements that link them to the mural itself. Both retain the mural’s scallop-shell motif behind Henry’s head. However, differences in the depiction of costume, jewelled accessories and furnishings suggest the artists were not simply reliant on either the cartoon or the mural.

The identities of most artists that copied Holbein’s Henry are unknown. However, a copy at Trinity College, Cambridge which has the monogram HE in the lower left corner has been attributed to Hans Eworth, one of Holbein’s most gifted successors who attracted the patronage of Katherine Parr, Henry’s last Queen. It was commissioned and bequeathed in 1567 by Robert Beaumont, one of the first Masters of the college.

Research undertaken at the Conservation Centre, revealed that a copy at Chatsworth House was also executed by Eworth. The portrait is known to have hung on the great stairs at the London house of William Cavendish, fourth Earl of Devonshire in 1685. The Cavendish family once owned the Whitehall mural cartoon now in the National Portrait Gallery. It is not surprising that the family had more than one full-length picture of Henry, having gained wealth, power and prestige as a result of the king’s dissolution of the monasteries. William Cavendish and his third wife ‘Bess of Hardwick’ became extremely rich under the Tudors, working for Protestant masters Henry and his son Edward VI and reverting to Catholicism during Queen Mary’s reign.

Full-length portraits of Henry were produced into the early 17th century, such as those at Belvoir, Parham, St Bartholomew’s Hospital and in the Royal Collection. A revival of enthusiasm for the former king may have related to Shakespeare’s creation of the history play, ‘Henry VIII’.

In the 18th century, visual references to Holbein’s Henry were still going strong with George Vertue producing a watercolour copy from Leemput’s oil painting. In 1776 Reynolds created the affectionate and humorous portrait, ‘Master Crewe as Henry VIII’ in which a small boy adopts Henry’s swaggering pose. Holman Hunt went on to paint a similar portrait of his five year old nephew Teddy Wilson, entitled ‘The King of Hearts’ which paid homage to Reynolds’ parody.

The swaggering stance that Holbein created has become one of the most visible hallmarks of the king’s identity. In 1933, Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning performance brought the image to the life in the film ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’. Laughton is known to have visited Hampton Court to view the Leemput copy of the mural during his research for the part. His portrayal was criticised by historians of the time for its inaccuracy, but his performance may well have influenced productions as diverse as the BBC costume drama ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ in 1972 and ‘Carry On Henry’ in 1971.

Our modern image of King Henry VIII does not derive from the endless woodcuts and engraved portraits which showed him seated or enthroned, or from the portraits executed in his mid to late forties, but from the Henry that Holbein created in the prime of his life. It is a portrayal that retains all of its brutal vitality to the present day.

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Exhibition sponsor

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management.