The Walker Art Gallery's Henry VIII

painting of king

Walker Art Gallery's Henry VIII

Walker Art Gallery’s Henry VIII is one of the best known and most popular of the gallery’s pictures. Visitors, especially schoolchildren, are still struck by Henry’s magnificent presence and fascinated by his story.

During his reign Henry used his portraits to further his diplomatic ends by sending them as political gifts and to cement relations and alliances. They were also used by nobility and courtiers to flatter and affirm their loyalty to the King. Only someone with considerable wealth would have the resources or incentive to commission a full-length picture to display in a large room or hall.

Walker Art Gallery’s portrait was more than likely commissioned by an important courtier declaring his allegiance to Henry. Unlike many other portraits of Henry, Walker Art Gallery’s has specific compositional similarities to the Whitehall mural, which would suggest the copy was intended for someone with access to the palace’s Privy Chamber and would recognise its significance.

The painting came to Walker Art Gallery through a connection with Jane Seymour’s family, although its exact origin is unknown. The Queen’s elder brother was Edward Seymour. As uncle to the future king, his influence and position at court was assured even after the death of his sister. It is possible that Edward Seymour commissioned the painting.

When Henry died and Edward VI acceded to the throne, Seymour led a successful coup in the Privy Council, naming himself Lord Protector of England and guardian to the child King Edward. He effectively ruled the country from January 1547 to October 1549, but soon fell prey to court infighting, leading to his arrest and execution for treason in 1552. However, he would have had ample opportunity to admire Holbein’s mural in the period between its 1537 completion and his death.

Although an inventory of some of Seymour’s goods survives, there is no proof that he owned Walker Art Gallery’s portrait. He is, however, known to have owned a portrait of Jane Seymour and to have paid ten shillings “to Hance that made queen Janes picture”. The ‘Hance’ in question may well have been Hans Holbein.

Walker Art Gallery’s portrait appears to have been painted by an artist who may have had access to one or other design pattern or cartoon for the mural scheme. Holbein tended to transfer portrait drawings to wood panels by tracing using a 16th century version of carbon paper. This technique meant that he could make labour saving copies of drawings of his most important clients.

Once he perfected this technique it is possible that he entrusted other artists to complete painted portraits, as Holbein’s own work would be subject to the King’s orders and priorities. Walker Art Gallery’s portrait is therefore accessioned as being ‘after Holbein’ - in other words by a follower of Hans Holbein.

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Exhibition sponsor

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management.