Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of King Henry VIII 

Hans Holbein, Follower of c.1497 - 1543

Portrait of King Henry VIII, Hans Holbein, Follower of
Oil on Panel
16th Century
34 ½ x 28 inches, 87.6 x 71.2 cm
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This painting is a contemporary replica of Hans Holbein’s celebrated portrait of Henry VIII. It derives from Holbein’s 1537 Whitehall mural, in which Henry VIII was grouped together with his father Henry VIII, his mother Elizabeth of York, and his third wife, Jane Seymour. The mural was destroyed by fire in the seventeenth century, but the image of Henry it presented had quickly become the standard image of the King by the late 1530s. A number of high quality replicas, some of which were almost certainly painted in Holbein’s studio, are known from the late 1530s onwards. In fact, so prevalent did Holbein’s face-on portrait of Henry become that a number of earlier likenesses of Henry, in which he was presented in the more conventional three-quarter profile, were later painted over with Holbein’s design.

Holbein’s use of a face-on composition for Henry’s portrait marked an important break with convention. His first portrayal of the King in oil showed Henry looking to the side, as seen in the Thyssen portrait of the mid 1530s, a picture which demonstrates the challenges Holbein faced when painting the king, for Henry by then had become a formidably unattractive man. He had always been well built — it was said in the 1520s that ‘when he moves the ground shakes beneath him’ — but in the latter half of his reign his girth grew greatly. Holbein’s full-length cartoon for the Whitehall mural [National Portrait Gallery, London] shows Henry looking to the side, as in the Thyssen picture; but at such a large scale we se just how unflattering the pose is, not least in showing Henry’s hooked nose and large double chin. Holbein somehow had to transform Henry’s irascible bulk into an identity fit for royal stately power.

His answer was to use the frontal pose repeated in the present picture. The format was unconventional in sixteenth century portraiture, since it was considered to be impolite and ‘graceless’. But Holbein, as so often, clearly liked breaking convention. The frontal pose was used regularly throughout his career. It appears in a number of drawings, and in the portraits of Christina of Denmark Anne of Cleves, and, most notably, the portrait of Charles de Solier [Dresden Gemaldegalerie], in which the pose is almost identical to that used in the final version of the Whitehall mural. Solier’s portrait was painted during his spell as French ambassador to London in 1534. It is possible that Henry VIII saw this and approved. Thus Holbein’s portrayal of Henry evolved as Henry grew ever larger, and all subsequent portraits of the King show him in this manner. Holbein’s ingenious trick was to accentuate Henry’s bulk, rather than reduce it. By placing his hands on his hips to make the stance more confrontational, and by incorporating the head and neck square-on, Holbein created a human fortress of imperial strength.

The present version was painted by an unknown follower of Holbein, but utilises some of the techniques then used by him and other mid-sixteenth century portraitists. For example, the King’s red jacket is painted with a rich red transparent glaze on top of a gold ground layer, an effect designed to make the picture glow in a darkened country house or large hall. Cursory under-drawing has also been used to sketch the outlines of the face and hands, with the initial design most likely taken from a template, or ‘mask’, which in turn would have been taken from Holbein’s original design. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panels on which the portrait is painted allows a most plausible usage date of 1540 onwards.

This picture was in the collection of the Godfrey-Faussett family until the later 20th Century, along with a number of other Tudor portraits. It is not known when they acquired the work, although the fact that the Godfrey-Faussett’s first achieved prominence under the Tudors (Humphry Godfrey was appointed Mayor of Dover in Edward VI’s reign), may suggest that the portraits were acquired or commissioned by the family at that date.

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