Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) 1550c.

 English School 

Portrait of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535),  English School
Oil on oak panel
16th Century
25 x 21 inches 69.9 x 54 cm
The Collection of the Earls of Lytton
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This painting - which has recently emerged from the collection of a noble family- is an impressive near-contemporary version of Hans Holbein's painting of 1527, now in the Frick Collection, New York.

In this present painting the artist has rendered not only Thomas More's characteristic intelligent and careworn expression but also the effects of drapery with considerable precision: the red velvet of the sitter's sleeves is particularly accomplished.

A portrait such as this would be commissioned either by those that had some particular connection to the sitter, or, more probably, by one who wished to furnish his house with the images of great men and allude to a place for his achievements among theirs. Although the painting's earliest history is not known, this would have been an appropriate motive for the Lytton family, some of whose members held important office in the sixteenth century. The brothers William and Rowland Lytton, for example, both held the office of Governor of Boulogne, and their grandfather Sir Robert had been a member of Henry VII's Privy Council. The particular status and importance of Sir Thomas More makes him an immediate candidate for a place in a gallery of worthies. His particular legacy lies in his work in promoting ''the new learning'', the Renaissance Humanism which More imported into the country, fostered by his friendship with Desiderius Erasmus, and which he expressed in works such as his Utopia.

He is best known, however, for his opposition to the King's Act of Succession separation of the English Church from the see of Rome. More's opposition to Reformation was total, and he pursued heresy vigorously both as a judge and then, after 1529, as Lord Chancellor. This circumstance -combined with a personal attachment to Catherine of Braganza- meant that even the King''s friendship could not induce him to swear to the act that appointed Henry head of the church in England, and which would enable him to divorce the Queen and marry Anne Boleyn. Royal disfavour soon followed, and in 1532 he resigned his office of Lord Chancellor. His opponents' response to this intransigence was slow but remorseless. In April 1534 he was imprisoned in the Tower after refusing to take the oath acknowledging the issue of Anne and Henry as the heirs to the throne. On July 1st of the following year More was tried for treason in Westminster Hall. He received the death sentence, which was carried out on July 6th on Tower Green. His last words were, ''I die the King''s good servant, but God''s first.'' Thomas More was consequently reckoned a martyr in the cause of the Roman Catholic Church, and venerated as such was finally canonised in 1935.
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