Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Katherine Parr, Queen of England (1512-1548) Late 16th Century

 English Sixteenth Century School 

Portrait of Katherine Parr, Queen of England (1512-1548),  English Sixteenth Century School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
21 1/4 x 15 3/5 in., 54 x 40 cm.
- Possibly William Bryant, sale at Edward Foster’s, London, 15th May 1823 as ‘Holbein’ - Archibald Alexander Leslie Melville, 13th Earl of Leven and 12th Earl of Melville by whom sold, Robinson and Fisher, 29th November 1934 lot 107, as ‘Holbein’ - Anon sale Christies London 9th June 1944, Lot 14 - 1967 J Gold Coll. - Anon Sale Sothebys London 11th July 1983 (lot 37)
Kateryn Parr, by Susan E. James (London 1999) p 421 fig 30, as showing the Queen c. 1546 Ian Tyers, Dendrochronoligical Survey, 2005
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As the famous rhyme suggests, Katherine Parr’s record as the last of Henry VIII’s six wives was unique. She survived. Though Anne of Cleves, the sad ‘Flanders Mare’ unable to arouse England’s most insatiable monarch, lived on until 1557 it is only Katherine who was neither divorced, beheaded, or died. She was by any standards a remarkable woman: beautiful enough to marry the King of England, despite having neither royal nor court background; shrewd enough to remain his Queen, despite court plots and an attempt on her life; and courageous enough to sustain the Protestant cause, despite Henry’s latent sympathies for the Roman faith. She was Regent of England during Henry’s invasion of France in 1544. And with her publication of religious works such as Prayers or Meditations in 1545, she became not only the first English Queen to publish a work of prose, but the first woman to do so in the sixteenth century.

Katherine became Queen of England in July 1543. Henry was her third husband, but, on this occasion, not her first choice. She had instead fallen in love with the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour, and was understandably wary of Henry’s past form when it came to marital relations. Five wives had failed – what chance did a sixth have of success? Nonetheless, to turn down the King’s offer of marriage was unthinkable. Katherine, a deeply devout woman, determined that if she was to be Queen, she would be Queen with a purpose. That purpose was to further the cause of the Protestant Reformation.

In doing so Katherine, literally, risked her life. Never afraid to exercise her sharp mind, Katherine had become accustomed to discussing religion with Henry VIII. Though this was at first welcomed by the King, the conservative factions of court and church were terrified of any radical words whispered into the Royal ear - that after all was how Anne Boleyn had first led Henry towards Lutheranism. To conservatives like Bishop Gardiner and Chancellor Wriothesley the answer seemed obvious – Katherine should meet the same fate as Anne. At first, Henry, increasingly irascible from ulcerated legs, indicated that Katherine’s days were numbered. An arrest warrant was drawn up, and, amid rumours of ‘a new queen’, arrest could only have been followed by death. But Katherine succeeded in persuading Henry of her good faith and innocent naivety. “Is it even so, Sweetheart?”, said the King, “Then perfect friends we are now again…” Thus did Tudor Royalty kiss and make up.

Katherine’s victory checked any conservative renaissance in the final years of the King’s reign. From now all eyes turned to the future (Protestant) reign of Edward VI. Here, Katherine appears to have been less successful, and for once followed her heart rather than her head. With ill-considered haste, she took Thomas Seymour as her lover within weeks of Henry’s death in 1547, and married him just months later. In doing so she lost any chance she may have had in exercising power during Edward’s minority. And yet, perhaps her final and most enduring success was yet to come, for in helping to restore the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession she had extended the Tudor dynasty by half a century. Katherine died after giving birth to a daughter in 1548.

The iconography of Katherine Parr is of particular interest. It is ironic that so few portraits of the Queen appear to survive, given that she was the foremost patron of portraiture in mid-Tudor England. There are several reasons why the Queen liked portraiture, not least because she evidently liked art. But perhaps the most intriguing reason may lie in Henry VIII’s habit (undoubtedly annoying to Catherine) of repeatedly portraying himself with Jane Seymour. Was Katherine’s jealousy manifested in art? Was her decision to commission the first full-length portraits of Elizabeth and Mary as Princesses, part of her desire to elevate them from illegitimate bastards to heirs of the English crown? Whatever the reasons, her legacy to the advancement of English portraiture cannot be doubted.

There are five recorded certainly known portraits of Katherine Parr that survive. The first is a miniature formerly in the collection of Horace Walpole (now at Sudeley Castle), which is probably by Lucas Hornebolt. The second and third, in the National Portrait Gallery, are a full-length (once erroneously called Lady Jane Grey) by Master John, and a half-length by an unknown artist. A fourth (Lambeth Palace) shows a young Katherine in the 1530s. And now the present example represents a fifth, and shows the Queen towards the end of her life.

And yet, Katherine’s own records show that she commissioned at least more than a dozen portraits of herself; “give me one of your small pictures”, her fourth husband Thomas Seymour wrote, “if ye have any left…” The contrast between Katherine’s commissions and those extant portraits gives a useful indication of how little survives from the sixteenth century – in this case less than a third. The Queen’s chamber accounts show that John Bettes the Elder painted up to seven miniatures – none survive – and nor apparently do any other miniatures by Hornebolt, aside from the possible Sudeley example.

Records also show that Katherine was painted by Hans Eworth, the Dutch artist considered the closest thing to Holbein’s heir . Such patronage was an indication of Katherine’s desire to support the new, for Eworth had only arrived in England c.1543. His earliest known work is dated 1549. The almost enamel-like flesh tones and bright colouring of the cheeks in this portrait, together with the distinctive modeling of the eyes, may suggest that the artist of this picture was influenced in some way by Eworth’s now lost original. The accomplished handling of the detail in Katherine’s out-turned collar, and the delicate portrayal of her hair, is also reminiscent of Eworth’s Mary Neville, Lady Dacre (National Gallery of Canada). That the jewelry Katherine wears in this portrait is similar to that recorded in her inventories, not to mention the intelligent depiction of Katherine’s slight physique, further suggests that it is based on a contemporary ad vivum example.

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