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Transcript of Henry VIII portrait podcast

So welcome to the Walker Art Gallery. My name’s Kate and I work here in the Learning team at the art galleries. And I’m really pleased to be able to speak to you today about our portrait of Henry VIII, or ‘the Walker’s Henry’. This painting is probably one of the most popular works we have in our collection, and probably one of the better known paintings that we hold, particularly with school groups. We find that we have an awful lot of interest in this painting from primary schools and other formal education groups studying Tudor history. I was therefore quite surprised that this painting hadn’t been done as one of our Picture Of The Month talks previously, so it is my pleasure to be able to speak to you about it today.

Obviously this is a painting of the English monarch Henry VIII, and it’s actually believed to be one of the first full length paintings of any English monarch so it’s quite a significant portrait. Henry, of course, is probably one of England’s best known monarchs. He was born in 1491 and died in 1547, and became king in 1509. Obviously Henry is probably most popularly known for having his six wives and being, shall we say, not afraid of harsh punishment, but I think what we’re going to come on to and talk a bit about later are some of the reforms that Henry made to the Church and state in England which we think is important for understanding this portrait of Henry here.

The painting itself is made of oil painted onto six oak wooden panels, and it dates from probably 1537 – 1552. It’s painted by an unknown artist after Hans Holbein, the famous artist of Henry VIII’s court. This portrait itself is based on a wall painting in Whitehall Palace which was known as the Whitehall Mural, and this was actually painted by Hans Holbein in 1537. Later on we’re going to come on to talk a little but more about the Whitehall mural as it’s quite significant and important in understanding this portrait we have here.

This is actually a copy of the Henry section of that mural, and so in terms of understanding this portrait what I want to do is spend a little bit of time in unpicking the history of Hans Holbein, thinking a little bit about the Tudor court and what the motivation might have been for wanting to have a portrait of Henry that looks like this.

First, onto Hans Holbein. Holbein was born in 1497 or 1498 and came from a family of artists. He was trained by his father who was a religious artist in southern Germany. Holbein himself moved to Basle in 1520 which at that time was a centre for book production, which is quite significant because it gave Holbein a lot of opportunity to produce work and be commissioned and so gain employment. But also, this environment that Holbein was in in Basle was quite important in terms of his development, and provided him with many contacts, one of whom was Erasmus. Basically Erasmus, in the 1520s, recommended Holbein go to England and put him in contact with Sir Thomas Moore who was the Lord Chancellor at the time. So that was Holbein’s first visit to England in 1526, and his contact with Thomas Moore provided Holbein with opportunities and got him work at Henry VIII’s court.

Now at first Holbein wouldn’t have been employed as a portrait artist. Like many other artists at that time Holbein would have been employed to do decorative work in the King’s palaces and the Royal residences, but we think that at this time Thomas Moore actually commissioned Holbein to produce a portrait of the Moore family, and that is something that was quite significant because it meant that Holbein’s reputation as somebody who was skilled at taking a likeness, began to be established. His reputation began to be furthered in Henry VIII’s court. We think that Holbein returned to Basle in August 1528 for a short period, probably he had a leave of absence to come to England for a 2 year period and then returned back to his own country, but he didn’t last very long here. He actually returned to London in 1532, and if we think about some of the reasons why that might have been obviously Germany at that time there was an awful lot of upheaval in terms of religious reform and the Lutheran reformation, and probably commissions for artists who traditionally made their money and living from religious communities in churches probably began to dry up. So there was an awful lot of upheaval in Germany at that time which we think led Holbein to come back to England.

Now of course in this time period, between 1528 and 1532 in England, again there was an awful lot of upheaval in Henry’s court. Holbein, with the contacts he had and his patrons, who had initially given him work such as Thomas Moore, were no longer in power – it was obviously a very fast changing court with a lot of factions and so Holbein found himself in a situation where he had a need to find new patrons and new people to commission work from him. Initially, on his return to London in 1532, Holbein was supported by the community of German merchants that was based in London. For example, we know that they commissioned Holbein to produce a triumphal arch to celebrate the coronation of the new queen, Ann Boleyn, and there are other indications that Holbein began to get more work from the Queen’s Court which was quite significant.

In 1533 Holbein came to the attention of the new Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, who was one of Henry’s main advisors and was very politically astute. We know that Holbein painted Cromwell’s portrait and from this think that Cromwell began to understand the importance of Henry’s image, the image of the king and how that could be used for propaganda. Among Holbein’s first royal commissions were small portraits of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, and the portrait that Holbein produced, which is a small bust portrait so just the head and shoulders of the king, is believed to be the only surviving image of Henry by Holbein. That has survived and that today is in a collection in Madrid.

The royal accounts are lost between 1531 and 1538 so it is quite difficult for us to establish with any precision when Holbein began to be employed directly by the king, but there are signs that he was employed, such as these small portraits. And I think it is obvious that Holbein did exceptionally well to have had such a long career in Henry VIII’s court. He died of plague in 1543 but to remain relatively unscathed in all that political turmoil in Tudor times I think is quite an achievement.

So that’s the background to Hans Holbein, and now coming onto what I said is the really important bit to consider when looking at our Walker portrait of Henry – the Whitehall mural which was one of the most significant of Holbein’s paintings. In 1537 Holbein created this wall painting in Whitehall Palace that celebrated the Tudor dynasty. So the original painting that this painting is based on showed Henry VIII, his parents - Henry VII and Elizabeth of York - and his wife, Jane Seymour. The mural was painted onto the wall of the Privy Chamber of Whitehall Palace which Henry inherited, loosely termed, after the death of Cardinal Wolsey. Unfortunately the Whitehall mural was destroyed by fire in 1698. The story is that a maid left laundry drying in front of a fire and that’s what led to Whitehall Palace being destroyed. It is lucky then for us, when considering the painting we have here in the Walker, that Charles II had the foresight to commission another artist to paint a copy of the Whitehall mural, so we can talk with some accuracy of the relationship between this painting and the Whitehall mural because of a painting that was commissioned in the 17th century. I actually have some print outs of that to give out to you today [distributes a sheet] just because I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking through this painting and it’s quite hard to understand without having a copy in front of you. The first thing to see when looking at this copy is that the image of Henry VIII is very similar to the image that we have here in the Walker’s collection. But we also have some other players of the Tudor dynasty featured in this portrait. So we have Henry VII standing behind Henry VIII. We have Henry VII’s wife standing on the other side of this sort of stone pillar in the middle of this painting, Elizabeth of York. Then in the foreground, standing alongside Henry, we have his third wife, Jane Seymour. So this painting by an artist called Remigius Van Leemput is basically the only record of the Whitehall mural that we have. And there’s also another source that’s quite useful for us, and that’s a copy of the original drawings used to make the Whitehall mural which are in the National Portrait G allery’s collection.

So what we need to think about are some of the factors that may have influenced Henry VIII and led him to commission the Whitehall mural because that leads us to understand this painting here which is a copy. The first thing to understand is that the Tudor dynasty at this time was a little precarious and the issue of strong leadership and the monarchy was still something that was in the mind of the Tudor king. This very much followed on from the Wars of the Roses which Henry VII was involved in which ran between 1453 and 1487. Henry VII’s claim to the throne was actually quite distant, quite a weak connection, and something we should consider is that the Whitehall mural could be a celebration of the Tudor dynasty designed to enhance and make people understand that it was very strong.

In turn the Whitehall mural could also be a celebration of Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Out of the three wives he had by 1537 she was the wife chosen to feature in this significant portrait. Basically, Jane Seymour was the mother of Henry’s only legitimate son, Edward, so it makes her quite an important wife in the pecking order of Henry VIII’s wives. We think that the Whitehall mural was commissioned around the time that Jane Seymour announced her pregnancy so probably in late 1536 to early 1537.

I’m not going to talk too much about how Henry is depicted in the mural because I want to come onto that a bit later on, but in terms of understanding the reasons why the Whitehall mural was commissioned I think that the inscription that you can see on the stone pillar in the centre part of the portrait is actually really significant. Part of the inscription, which I’ll read out as it’s quite difficult to see from that print out, reads:

The son [so that’s Henry VIII], born indeed for greater tasks, from the altar removed the unworthy and put worthy men in their place. To unerring virtue the presumption of Pope’s has yielded, and so long as Henry VIII carries the sceptre in his hand religion is renewed, and during his reign the doctrines of God have begun to be held in his honour.

So this is a direct reference to the most significant event of that time which was Henry’s split from the Roman Church, from Rome, and Henry establishing himself as supreme head of both Church and state. Now this is an absolutely fundamental change in England and was cemented by the Act of Supremacy in 1534 which did indeed declare Henry the supreme ruler of both Church and state. So the inscription in the Whitehall mural gives us a really good indication as to the motivation behind the commissioning of the portrait.

And also another event in 1536 could have been another one of the motivations. Obviously the changes that Henry VIII brought in, like the dissolution of the monasteries, weren’t universally popular in England. There was some resentment of these changes that Henry had brought in, and this culminated in a rebellion in the north of the country called the Pilgrimage of Grace which took place in 1536. Now Henry at the time, being quite clever in how he dealt with this rebellion, appeased those who took part but then followed it with a very brutal punishment, which was execution of all the main leaders, the main perpetrators. But just to say that rebellion in a country like England around this time wasn’t something that would have been taken lightly – it was obviously a very serious event and one that the monarch had to stamp down on and make clear that his authority was supreme. So I think that is really important in how Henry is depicted in this portrait which we’ll come onto and talk about in just a little while.

The issue of how much the Whitehall mural was used as propaganda is something that has been disputed by historians, and it’s mainly to do with where the Whitehall mural was situated in Whitehall Palace. Basically this is because the painting was painted onto the Privy Chamber wall which was the King’s private apartment. Tthe use of the Privy Chamber changed over Henry VIII’s lifetime, so probably when the mural was first painted only courtiers who were very high ranking and had immediate access to the King had access to the King’s private apartments. But during the 1540s, as Henry became less well and had varying episodes of illness, he probably became confined to his Privy Chamber a lot more which meant that a lot of state business would be conducted in his private apartments, so you can imagine that with that an awful lot more people would have seen this mural and it would have had a much greater impact.

So you can see just looking at the Whitehall mural that Henry VIII is really the star of that show. He is the person with the most assertive body language, he is the most prominent figure displayed. What I just want to do is go on and talk about the Walker portrait which is a faithful copy of Holbein’s original design, so when I talk about this painting here I’m not only crediting the artist of the Walker portrait who is unknown, but also crediting Holbein’s original master plan for the presentation and presentation of Henry VIII. We think that given the similarity between our portrait of Henry VIII and the Whitehall mural, we think that the artist, although unknown, was probably someone who had access to Holbein’s drawings, preparations, the cartoons he would have produced to get ready to produce the Whitehall mural because there are such similarities.

In this portrait Henry VIII pretty much looks like the ideal king. He is portrayed as being strong, agile, assertive, and basically the overwhelming sense is one of power, of Henry VIII’s power. There are no traditional signs of monarchy displayed on Henry VIII, but we know that he is somebody terrifically important and powerful. For example, he is not featured with a crown or a sceptre or any of those other things. Instead Holbein has managed to convey the significance of this person and his authority through other means. So, for example, the first technique Holbein uses to convey power is Henry VIII’s body language. He is featured as having really broad shoulders accentuated by his costume; feet planted firmly apart conveying strength. Also Henry is looking straight ahead at us, at the viewers, and that is something significant and is a significant change Holbein made when he painted the Whitehall mural. It was quite unconventional at the time for Tudors to be depicted in a portrait in full profile. Normally the profile would be seen at the ¾ angle, similar to the two adjacent portraits that you have here. Somewhere along the lines when Holbein was designing this portrait he made the conscious decision to portray Henry facing out at us. And of course, the impression that that gives is of a king who isn’t scared of anybody, and that’s the achievement of that quite subtle change in the portrait. We know that Holbein changed his mind about this and that it was a conscious decision because the cartoon in the National Portrait Gallery collection was probably an earlier cartoon made by Holbein and in the portrait Henry is actually in ¾ profile similar to the other figures that are in the portrait. That’s something that is quite significant.

Another sign of strength is the fact that Henry's hands are hovering above the dagger in quite a menacing way [laughs] and if you think about what we’ve said about the possibility of rebellion in the country at that time you can see that Henry might want to be portrayed as a king who is ready to spring into action at anytime and is capable of dealing with any problems that come his way.

Then of course another sign of Henry’s status is the incredible wealth portrayed in this portrait. It is phenomenal - the jewellery and costume he is draped in. We can see this by the fact he is wearing exceptionally fine clothes, so these layers of silk and other things, the fur that lines his outer coat, and also the gold embroidery that’s featured in this red cloth here. Exceptional wealth is being displayed. Then of course that is added to by the vast amount of jewellery that Henry VIII is wearing which again, during Tudor times, may have been perceived as a bit vulgar by continental contemporaries who may not have liked this display of wealth that Henry’s portrayed with here. You can see things like this fantastic collar that Henry is wearing, studded with pearls and rubies, the rubies featured on his costume along the sleeves, and of course the jewels on his fingers. And we also have this quite fine chain that leads to a central pomander that would have held sweet smelling herbs and other things that may have been necessary in Tudor times. And I’m not sure if you can just make out there that along that chain are Henry’s initials, so very fine h’s along the gold chain itself. From that we get the sense that this is an incredibly powerful and wealthy individual as would befit a king. Other kinds of wealth displayed in this portrait are basically the architectural backdrop that we have behind, and also this fantastic curtain, this white and gold curtain on the left hand side of the painting, decorated with Tudor knots. We also have the carpet that Henry is standing on which would have been a Turkish carpet imported, so again all signs that this is somebody who is incredibly wealthy and privileged and incredibly powerful.

So in terms of this portrait really the impression is that Henry wants to use his image as propaganda. He wants to appear powerful and successful and all of those things. Who commissioned this portrait as Henry commissioned the Whitehall mural? Just as Henry may have wanted to appear strong and demonstrate his leadership it is possible that courtiers in Henry’s court would have wanted to demonstrate their allegiance to the King by commissioning a portrait like this one. Portraits like this in Tudor times were prized commodities, tremendously expensive to commission, so we think from this the likeliest commissioner of such a portrait would be have been i) someone who as familiar with the Whitehall mural so probably somebody who was quite a high rank and had access to the king’s private apartment, ii) who had exceptional wealth to be able to commission something like this from an artist, and thirdly had a hall big enough to display such a fine portrait, and we think that a likely contender as to who commissioned this portrait was possibly Edward Seymour, the brother of the King’s third wife, Jane, who is featured in the Whitehall Mural. Now Edward Seymour was somebody who basically rose to power and was quite important in Henry’s court, but also significantly was the Lord Protector of the young king, Edward VI. So someone who really saw the benefit in demonstrating his allegiance to the Tudor king. We think that this came down from Edward Seymour because the painting was bought at auction from a descendant of the Seymour family, so we don’t have documentary proof it was commissioned by Edward Seymour but our curators think that is an educated guess – as close as were going to get unless some documentation is unearthed in the next few years. And basically we’re really exceptionally glad to have this painting in our collection. As I said at the beginning it is tremendously popular with schools and other groups.

If there is anything anyone wants to know…? I’m around for the next quarter of an hour. If you want a chat or to ask anything informally you are more than welcome, I am here. Thank you very much for coming along.