Friday 8 March 2024

"Hans the Most Famous"* by Mary Hoffman


Hans Holbein the Younger, Self-portrait

Think of Henry Vlll and what picture floats into yoir mind? Or Thomas Cromwell, or Thomas More? The likely answer is an image painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, a German-Swiss Master who spent more than a third of his life in England and weathered the stresses of the king's marriages, religious reforms and and the many shocks that Tudor England was heir to. In fact you can't really think of the Tudors at all without the man who became known as the King's Painter.

There is an exhibition on till 14th April at the King's Gallery in Buckingham Palace (though it was still the Queen's Gallery when we visited it in January) called Holbein at the Tudor Court and it is well worth your time to go and see it. 

Young Hans was born in the autumn/winter of 1497 in Augsburg, Bavaria the son of Hans the Elder, who was also a professional painter. His older brother, Ambrosius, was a painter too and their uncle Sigismund (or Sigmund) seems also to have worked in Hans the Elder's studio. The boys would have been brought up in an atmosphere of portraits and altarpieces, of oil paints and book design.

Augsburg had been passed over by the plague that ravaged most of Europe in earlier centuries and, with access to the forests and rivers of Bavaria, had become a booming centre for timber, metal, paper and textile industries.The Holbeins lived in a three-storey building by a narrow canal, reached  over a little wooden bridge.

Hans the Elder's art was largely devotional, paintings and murals on religious themes, painting textiles and carpets in exquisite detail, a technical skill inherited by his younger and more famous son. 200 sketches survive from Hnas the Elder, mostly portraits. But art at the time was not valued in the way it became in later centuries. An "artist" was an alien concept in the Renaissance; even Vasari in 1550 wrote his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects without use of that term. The social position of the Holbeins and other what we would now call 'artists" in both Northern and Southern Europe was that of an artisan, someone paid for his labours as piecework or on commission.

But the prosperous merchants and bankers of Augsburg were keen to have their likenesses commemorated, whether in portraits or as donors on lavish altarpieces.

Ambrosius and Hans, drawn by their father

By his late teenage years Hans the younger had moved to Basel with his older brother Ambrosius, where they became apprenticed to another Hans, Herbster, Basel's leading painting of his day. They found work making woodcuts for use in book production in the young industry of printing and one of their first jobs was to drawmarginal pictures for a work by Desiderius Erasmus, the leading Humanist of BNorthern Europe.

A few years later it seems that Ambrosius might have died, since nothing more is recorded of his work. Young Hans, on the other hand, thrived, marrying a well-off widow, Elsbeth, who already had one sone and started bearing more children to her second husband. And in 1923, Hans painted his first portrait of Erasmus, who recommended the artist to his friend Sir Thomas More in England.

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger


Three years later and Hans quit Basel to seek his fortune in London but this was just his first foray into England. He went back to Basel for four more years, painting his wife and their two older children, in the time between many commissions. But Basel was a hotspot for Protestant Reform and the political upheavals there made the city a dangerous place for artists, whose freedom to paint whatever they liked was strictly curtailed.

Perhaps this is why Hans went back to London in 1532, where another kind of upheaval was soon to rock the Tudor court. By then Henry Vlll had convinced himself that the lack of a male heir from his wife Katherine of Aragon was God's punishment of the king for marryting his older brother's widow. At least, that was Henry's justification for wanting to divorce his wife and marry a young lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, in the belief she would bring forth a prince to inherit his crown. Henry was infatuated with Anne and took his case to the Pope and to anyone that would listen. To make a long and complicated story short, he solved his problem by splitting from the Church in Rome and becomiong Supreme Head of the Church of England - a strategem suggested by Thomas Cromwell, who was becoming the king's right hand man.

Useless then for Holbein to play his card of introduction from Thomas More, who was opposed to the king's second marriage, and he might have returned to Basel with his tail between his legs, since More resigned his role as Lord Chancellor in May 1532.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein the Younger

The coming men were of the Boleyn faction and Thomas Cromwell himself; Holbein lost no time in making himself known to them and it seems as if art won out over politics as this former proteg√© of More's gained favour at the Tudor Court. He started modestly, with portraits of rich merchants, which must have recalled his early life in Augsburg, but in 1533, Holbein painted what is probably still his most famous work, The Ambassadors, now in the National Gallery. Aristocrat Jean de Dinteville and  Bishop Georges de Selve were French diplomats for Francis 1, who were both in London at the time. 

This enigmatic painting, with the elongated skull in the foreground, has led to much speculation. It is said to combine the Arts and Sciences, religion and politics and its technical skill is beyond doubt. Maybe it was this that established young Hans, not yet forty, as the premier painter of the 16th century in England.

1533 was a momentous year for England and Henry. He had married his Anne but his divorce from Katherine had not been sanctioned by the Pope and he was excommunicated. Holbein was commissioned to paint a portrait of Anne Boleyn, but after her fall from grace and execution in 1536, all memorials of her were expunged from the record. This charming drawing of her in a night cap survives and is in the exhibition:

By 1536, Holbein the Younger was designated "the king's painter" (not the only one) and paid £30 a year by Henry for his services. Franny Moyle's magnificent book The King's Painter (Head of Zeus 2021) suggests that the king had a genuine affection for the artist and held him in great esteem. But it was a dangerous thing to be a friend of Henry's as Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey had found to their cost and Thomas Cromwell would in time experience. 

Earl of Essex (Thomas Cromwell) by Holbein the Younger

Holbein was not so associated with the Boleyns that he suffered for the connection after Anne's death and he continued to paint the prominent men and women of the court. In 1537, the king gave Holbein the commission of depicting his whole family in a mural for Whitehall and, although this work is lost, a copy of it is the origin of all our ideas of the Tudor monarch in his heyday, sumptuously dressed, legs apart in perhaps the first "power stance" of English politics.

Copy by Remigius after Holbein the Younger


The mural featured Henry's parents, Henry Vll and Elizabeth of York, behind him and Jane Seymour, his third queen, on the right. Holbein also painted a full portrait of Queen Jane, the sketch for which is in the exhibition.

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger

As, surely, everyone knows, Queen Jane died shortly after giving birth to Hanry's only legitimater son and heir, who became Edward Vl. This was when things became perilous for Holbein, who was tasked with depicting the candidates to be Henry's fourth wife. One of the king's early choices was Cristina of Denmark, whose half-portrait is in the exhibition (a copy - for the dazzling full-length portrait you must go to the National Gallery).

Cristina of Denmark by Holbein the Younger

Henry's courtship of Cristina was unsuccessful - she is said to have valued her head too much to accept him - and a later candidate was Anne of Cleves. Hans painted a most beguiling portrait of her but Henry found it untrue to life. The disastrous marriage and annulment that followed might have cost Holbein his head, since it contributed to the execution of Thomas Cromwell, who had brokered the match. But Hans kept his head down, and attached to his shoulders. He had lost all his patrons - More, Anne Boleyn and Cromwell but he survived in the torrid world of King Henry's Court, to fight another day.

Anne of Cleves by Holbein the Younger (Louvre, Paris)

There is a miniature that might be of Henry's fifth wife, the ill-fated and short-lived Katherine Howard. Certainly many of Holbein's paintinhgs were copied as miniatures and circulated among Tudor nobles. The exhibition is full of these and many, many exquisite drawings - Mary Shelton, Thomas Wyatt, Thomas More, to name just a few. But you might want to supplement the experience with a an add-on trip to the National Gallery to see Cristina and the Ambassadors. And the National Portrait Gallery for Thomas Cromwell and a copy of Sir Thomas More. The shop at the Monarch's Gallery will sell you the catalogue but I recommend Franny Moyle's book in preference. It is lavishly illustrated and you should not skimp but buy the hardback, as the paperback is inferior.

What were the qualities that made Holbein ther Younger so prominent and his work so enduring in its appeal? Flattery certainly wasn't among them. The king looks powerful, yes, but his tiny mouth and meaty face are far from attrractive and Jane Seymour is positively plain. (Even Holbein's own self-portrait at the head of this post, painted in the year before his death, does him no favours). It is of course possible that standards of beauty/handsomeness have changed somewhat since Tudor times.  

Holbein's technical skills afre beyond doubt, whether in depicting rich fabrics, furs and lace in detail or the modest folds of a simple gown. His main strength seems to be an unsurpassed ability to present us with the sitter itself. Whether the figure is noble, distinguished, sly or "looking like a murderer." as a character in Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy describes his poirtrait, he or she looks out at us over the centuries, saying "this is who I am; take me or leave me."

Hans Holbein the Younger died in 1543, at the age of around 46, possibly of the plague that ravaged London in that year. His luck finally ran out but at the time of his death he was the "most famous" English painter (he had taken English citizenship so let us claim him as our own). Nearly six hundred years later his works are exhibited in a sell-out show, which you should try to see before it closes. 


* from a poem by Nicholas Bourbon


Susan Price said...

The cat never had better pyjamas than Hans Holbein. I always think his line drawings even more beautiful than his paintings. -- Thanks for this, Mary.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Alas, I doubt I will have the opportunity to see this exhibition. What a pity.This blog is fascinating. I think I read recently that a novelist I know has been commissioned to write a fictional account of Hans Holbein's life. He seems to be in vogue again.