Audio guide clip - transcript
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These portraits of Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth the First - father and daughter - couldn’t be more different. The oldest, Henry, is the most realistic - the most modern-looking. It’s furthest from what was expected five hundred years ago.
This Henry – the image we all know from stage and screen – shocked the people who first saw it. Portraits tended to be small and half-length, in profile, recording only basic appearance. But this Henry is in every way larger than life. Most terrifying of all - when we’re already forced to look up at him looking down on us - is his aggressive, full-on pose. With massive, puffed-up bulk on straddled legs – longer than they really were - clenched fists, and hand hovering menacingly above his dagger he fixes us with suspicious eyes. He doesn’t need a crown to show he’s King.
This is a copy from a 1537 palace mural by Hans Holbein. By that time Henry had broken with the Catholic Church to marry Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn - then executed her to marry Jane Seymour. He’d also just brutally suppressed a rebellion against his church reforms. In the mural’s only surviving preparatory drawing – or cartoon - Henry’s face is turned to one side. But in the finished version, later destroyed by fire, he was as he is here. It’s likely Holbein made the change after the rebellion – portraying him as the tyrant he’d just proved himself to be. A visitor seeing the mural said he felt ‘annihilated by his presence’.