Henry VIII Revealed

24 January to 30 March 2003

This exhibition has closed

detail of painting of the king

Unknown, painted between 1537-1562? oil on 6 oak planks, 238.2 x 134.2cm, Walker Art Gallery (detail)

King Henry VIII is one of the best known and most recognisable monarchs in world history. The exhibition Henry VIII Revealed brought together four of the finest portraits of this phenomenal ruler, whose infamous public and private affairs still fascinate.

How did Henry generate and project such a powerful image? How did a record of King Henry’s striking appearance and breath-taking presence survive through the centuries to the present day?

Henry VIII Revealed looked at the definitive Henry VIII portrait, its origin, influence and legacy. The best known is Walker Art Gallery’s own stunning painting, based on the Holbein mural at Whitehall Palace which was destroyed by a fire more than 300 years ago.

Holbein’s Whitehall mural was commissioned and officially endorsed by the king. It was the first life-size full-length portrait of a monarch to be created in England. It underlined his power and majesty and was reported to have struck awe into the hearts of those that saw it. To this day this image remains the archetypal Henry VIII pose and was even featured in Shekhar Kapur’s blockbuster movie, 'Elizabeth'.

The Walker Art Gallery’s Henry VIII portrait was conserved and restored by experts at Liverpool’s Conservation Centre, leading to a number of new findings about it. The exhibition was the result of a collaboration between art historians and art conservators and was accompanied by an in depth catalogue. Find out more about this on the Paintings conservation web pages.

There were three other major Henry portraits on show, from Petworth, Chatsworth and Trinity College Cambridge, as well as the Leemput copy of Hobein's mural from the Royal Collection.

Henry VIII Revealed featured a copy of Holbein’s original mural. Genuine drawings by Holbein for jewellery and dagger sheaths were shown, as well as two of Henry’s personal belongings - his illustrated Psalter prayer book and an astrolabe astronomical instrument. A Turkish carpet similar to the one in Walker Art Gallery’s portrait was also displayed.

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management

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.

The Whitehall mural

painting of royal family

Copied after Hans Hobein's Whitehall mural, Remigius van Leemput, 1667, oil on canvas, 88.9 x 98.7cm, © The Royal Collection, Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II

Henry VIII ‘inherited’ Whitehall Palace after Cardinal Wolsey’s death in 1529. He spent a considerable amount of money on it and it was regarded as the largest palace in Europe. It covered 23 acres and included extensive private lodgings.

It was here that Holbein created his largest and most important royal commission, the Whitehall mural, in which Henry was portrayed with his Queen Jane Seymour and his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Sadly the palace burned down on 4-5 January 1698 when a laundry maid left washing drying in front of an open fire. Holbein’s painting was lost forever.

Luckily, in 1667 the Flemish artist Remigius van Leemput (an assistant of Van Dyck) had produced a small copy of the great wall painting. It measured 88.9 x 98.7cm. This reduced version is now the only complete record of the mural painted in oil, which stood at an impressive 270 x 360cm. According to the copy’s inscription it was created at the command of Leemput’s royal master King Charles II.

No contract survives for the Whitehall mural, but it must have been commissioned in the short period between Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in May 1536 and her death following a Caesarean childbirth in October 1537. The commission was possibly requested when she became pregnant. There is evidence to suggest that she was dead by the time the mural was completed.

There have been disagreements about why the painting was produced and who was meant to see it. Some believe that it was made for publicity purposes and to be seen by visitors. Others believe it was a private image, meant meant only to be seen by the king and his senior courtiers, whilst intimidating selected diplomatic visitors. But it was probably painted on a wall in Henry's Privy Chamber in Whitehall Palace.

The painting included Latin verses, directing praise at the two male rulers. However, Henry VIII’s historical role is explicitly ranked as higher than his father, Henry VII:

“The son, born indeed for greater tasks, from the altar
Removed the unworthy and put worthy men in their place”.

The inscription emphasizes Henry VIII’s defeat of his rebellious advisors and his supremacy over the Roman Catholic Church and papacy. His confrontational pose facing the viewer front on makes him seem more forceful and powerful than his father, even though Henry VII is higher up in the picture.

The mural has often been described as propaganda for the Tudor dynasty, extolled the virtues of two great kings, but Henry VIII clearly outshines his father in Holbein’s portrayal.

Those who saw it would have been in awe of the king. Henry VIII had a fierce reputation and the low position of the mural would have made the daunting figure terrifyingly close. Karel van Mander, writing in the early 17th century commented that as Henry,

“stood there, majestic in his splendour, [he] was so lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence”.

Court and politics

painting of Henry VIII

Unknown, painted between 1537- 1557? oil on 5 oak panels, 238.3 x 122.1cm, Petworth House, The Egremont Collection

Hans Holbein the Younger’s rise as a court painter to Henry VIII coincided with a number of significant national events that came to define the king’s rule. The painter returned to England in 1532 at the beginning of one of the most dramatic decades in English history.

In 1531 the king separated from his Queen, Katherine of Aragon. During 1533, when Holbein was busy painting his innovative portrait ‘French Ambassadors’, Henry married Anne Boleyn, proclaiming her Queen, even though the Pope had refused to acknowledge his divorce from Katherine, and proceeded to excommunicate the king.

In November 1534 Henry established himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England under a new law called the Act of Supremacy. This meant that matters of religion would be the responsibility of the sovereign, who would be regarded as God’s deputy on earth.

By May 1535 the king was ordering the execution of those refusing to swear the oath of loyalty to the Act of Succession. The Act was created to change the line of succession from Katherine’s daughter, Princess Mary to Anne Boleyn’s daughter , Elizabeth.

During the summer of 1535, Henry and Anne took a tour of the West Country to promote the recent religious reforms. They visited Sir John Seymour at Wulfhall, Wiltshire and it seems likely that Henry began his affair with John’s daughter, Jane at this time. Anne had already argued with Henry’s chief adviser Thomas Cromwell. Although Jane was not considered particularly accomplished or pretty, she may have appealed to Henry as contrast to the feisty Anne. Jane was demure, discreet and subservient, taking as her motto, “Bound to Obey and Serve”.

In 1536 Henry’s affairs took a nasty turn. During a tournament in Greenwich, Henry fell and his armoured horse landed on top of him, leaving him unconscious for two hours. He was in his mid-forties and was still in fair shape, measuring 37 inches around the waist and 45 inches across the chest. However, in the years following the accident he became less active and by 1540 had ballooned to a staggering 54-inch waist and 57-inch chest. It is possible the fall aggravated the leg ulcers and varicose veins that he had suffered since the 1520s. It may also have deepened Henry’s growing concerns about his lack of a male heir.

Five days after Henry’s jousting fall, his first wife Katherine of Aragon died and his second wife Anne Boleyn went into premature labour, losing the baby boy she was carrying. This loss marked the beginning of Jane Seymour’s rise. By March her eldest brother Edward was knighted and appointed a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber.

On 19 May 1536 Anne Boleyn was executed. The following day the king was betrothed to Jane and they were married on 30 May. She was declared Queen on 4 June and Edward was made Viscount Beauchamp.

From the spring of 1537 onwards, Holbein worked on Henry’s Whitehall mural. The painting was a concerted effort to create a popular image of the king following his break from Rome. The uncertainty and changes in political and religious allegiances that Henry created during the 1530s, had given his contemporaries a less than flattering view of him.

The French ambassador Charles de Marillac said that Henry was tainted by three vices; “distrust and fear”, “lightness and inconsistency” and that he was “so covetous that all the riches of the world would not satisfy him”. As Catholics, the French ambassadors might be considered biased, but Lutheran supporters were equally damning. Luther himself is reported to have said “Squire Harry meant to be God and do as pleased only himself”.

Holbein portrayed Henry as commanding, resolute and assertive, emphasising his wide shoulders and strong face. This powerful image was precisely what was required to convey the king as God’s deputy on earth – an image that endures to the present day.

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.

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.

Background

Henry VIII's eyes

Detail from the Walker Art Gallery's Henry VIII

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

The portrait shows Henry in a strong and authoritative pose, his barrel-chested figure, feet planted firmly apart, glaring down 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 the portrait shows the King looking 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.

Exhibition sponsor

Henry VIII Revealed was sponsored by BWD Rensburg Investment Management.