Holbein and Henry VIII!

Our book today is Roy Strong’s 1967 monograph in the Mellon Foundation’s “Studies in British Art” series, Holbein and Henry VIII. Strong was something of a study in contrasts – an essentially private man who nevertheless possessed a faultless flair for pleasing the public, a mousey man who wrote with a positively leonine strength – and those very contrasts help him inestimably in this quick study of art and propaganda in the reign of Henry VIII. The ‘art’ side of the equation most people know well (whether they realize it or not): the incredible artwork of Hans Holbein the Younger, the numerous woodcuts and book-designs, yes, but far more so those eerily perfect portraits from Tudor England, staring at us from manor and museum walls like impossible photographs from five centuries ago. It’s often been said that Holbein does more than any other artist to convince even the most casual onlooker that the past was populated by real people, not textbook names, and we instinctively want to associate that verisimilitude with some species of artistic freedom, rather than simply being a fad (“Oh! Did you see what Mister Holbein did to me?”).

The fluctuating meaning of artistic freedom is at the heart of Strong’s study. When Holbein first visited England in 1526 (bearing letters of introduction from the great Dutch humanist Erasmus), it was a sunlit land of fat commissions. The artist moved in fairly genteel circles, sketching court ladies and painting the likes of Erasmus’ fellow humanist Thomas More. He stayed for two years, increasing his fame and his purse before returning to Europe. The England to which he returned in 1532 could hardly have been more different. Gone was the tranquillity; in its place was the ferocious struggle being waged between the King and the Catholic Church. There were many, many more fat commissions for our painter – but they now came with a price: thanks to sleek royal agents like Thomas Cromwell, every aspect of court life performed some function of propaganda. There were no innocent pictures anymore.

Strong expertly covers the whole spectrum of such propaganda, from the simple woodcuts Holbein did for Thomas Cramner’s Catechism of 1548 (Christ Casting out the Devil is a good example – seemingly innocuous, but the attending Pharisees, helpless to chastise the devil, are all dressed in the clerical garb of Rome – a dig no contemporary viewer could have failed to recognize) to the large, elaborate wall painting (now lost) showing Henry standing centerpiece in a fantasy-reconstruction of the entire Tudor dynasty. Plans and sketches of the work survive and lend credence to Strong’s suppositions about the effect the original must have had on palace visitors who experienced it as a brightly-colored backdrop to the living man himself, the king whose portrait is Holbein’s most famous work:

The bulky figure of the King, legs astride, feed firmly planted on the ground, a fantastic amalgam of the static and the swaggering, is accepted as Holbein’s most definitive portrait creation. No one ever thinks of Henry VIII in any other way than as this gouty, pig-eyed pile of flesh, whose astounding girth is only emphasised by the layers of slashed velvets and furs that encase him.

Strong, who at the time of this book was an Assistant Keeper at the National Portrait Gallery, makes an irrefutable case that neither Holbein nor anybody else at court was free of artistic complicity. The painter is actually listed on Master Secretary’s pay-rolls, and the oddly powerful portrait of baby prince Edward (later King Edward VI) presented to Henry on 1 January 1539 is just one more clinching piece of proof, since the verses accompanying the work were written by Richard Morison, a bought-and-paid-for creature of Cromwell’s:

Their author is a key figure linking Holbein directly into the circle of those who, under the guidance of Thomas Cromwell, were paid apologists for the official policy of the Crown. Between the years 1536 and 1539 Morison was employed to defend the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, to support the Supremacy of the Crown in things ecclesiastical and to denounce the rebels who made up the Pilgrimage of Grace. Holbein should  be seen as one of this team of Morison and his companions, as one facet of the whole apparatus which was unloosed around the Crown in the 1530′s to create an image potent enough to hold together a people in loyalty to the Crown in the face of a break with the ancient historic claims of a united Christendom.

There’s less attraction in this view of Holbein, certainly (and Strong of course wasn’t the first to propose this, although this book is a typically strong and fast piece of his work). We instinctively want the great portraitist to be politically indifferent, even though none ever was. The idea of Hans Holbein charging his artwork with the political and religious schemes of Anne Boleyn or Thomas Cromwell feels somehow alien to the very clarity of the man’s work. The clarity stands apart, however – no matter what else these portraits (and the equally-charming portrait sketches) might have been, they are clearly also brilliantly faithful renditions of how people actually looked. Long after machinations and strategies have fallen away into the footnotes of histories, those real people are still staring out at us, wary, distracted, fleshy but not prettified, often seeming to have forgotten that a portraitist was sitting in the room. That’s a priceless thing Holbein gave to the future, regardless of whatever else he did and why he did it. And the whatever else is fascinating in its own right.

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