‘Holbein redeemed a whole era for us from oblivion,’ remarks the author of a trilogy of novels set at Henry VIII’s court. ‘He has forced us to believe that his vision of it was the only feasible one.’
This is a bit of a tease. It’s not written by Hilary Mantel, as you might be expecting, but by Ford Madox Ford, who, a century before Wolf Hall, published a sequence of novels about Henry’s fifth queen, Katharine Howard. Nevertheless, Ford’s point is irrefutable. It is impossible to imagine the England of Henry VIII except through the eyes of ‘the King’s Painter’, Hans Holbein. Not just the king, portrayed as massive, brutish, dominating — and with the largest codpiece in western Christendom — but a host of courtiers, queens, prelates, merchants, humanists and martyrs, captured in around 50 surviving paintings and double that number of preparatory drawings, and brought astonishingly to life.
The artist himself, though, remains unknowable and enigmatic. The Holbein scholar Paul Ganz once claimed that any biography of the painter was doomed to be ‘a dry recital of facts’, revealing almost nothing of his personality or private life. Unlike Dürer, his near contemporary, Holbein didn’t record his ideas in treatises or notebooks. His will is the only surviving personal document. This was discovered in 1861 in the archives of St Paul’s Cathedral, and showed that he hadn’t lived through the reign of Edward VI, as previously thought, but had died in 1543. The will says nothing about the dispersal of his work, nor even of his painter’s tools. It does reveal that he had a second family, two infant children in England in addition to the three he’d left behind in his native city of Augsburg with his wife Elsbeth.
Franny Moyle’s ambitious, sumptuously illustrated book can’t overcome this fundamental problem. She cheerfully admits that the absence of documentary evidence has forced her to rely on speculation, while for some anecdotal detail she reaches back to the early 17th century, to Carel van Mander’s unreliable first biography. But a bold outline of the man still makes its impression. Moyle’s Holbein has a certain swagger, appropriate for an artist regarded by himself and countless others as a modern Apelles, the renowned painter of ancient Greece. In an age when you literally displayed wealth and status on your sleeve, Holbein’s showy apparel — some of his work at court was paid for in fine linen collars — indicates a confident sense of his position.
Above all it’s clear that Holbein was an opportunist. In such turbulent times he had to be. Arriving on his first visit to England in 1526 from Basel, where he’d made his living painting altarpieces and elaborate façades on the exteriors of buildings, he was armed with a recommendation from Erasmus, his humanist patron. This gave him prized access to Sir Thomas More and a web of court connections.
Returning home after two years in England, Holbein was prompted to settle in London again by the advent of the Reformation, which had brought to Basel the violent destruction of the religious images on which his livelihood depended. The political background in England was transformed too. More was disgraced, and Henry VIII was about to break with Rome. By now Holbein had converted to Protestantism, earning Erasmus’s rebuke — oddly missed by Moyle — that he had deceived ‘those to whom he was recommended’. Henceforth he would play his part as a leading image-maker for the Henrician revolution through his association with Thomas Cromwell. Yet you look at Cromwell’s piggy-eyed ruthlessness in Holbein’s portrait of him that hangs today in the Frick in New York and are left wondering whether the artist had any regard at all for the minister.
One of the great strengths of Moyle’s book is that it allows you to view Holbein’s enormous versatility. He was in demand for his large-scale decorative work, book illustration (the marvellous ‘Dance of Death’, buzzing with movement), and metalwork, weaponry and jewellery design. In his portraiture, he constantly employs tricks of artifice and illusion, particularly in his manipulation of space where he challenges our perceptions of what is real and what is painted surface. Time and again, though, one returns, awe-struck, to the overwhelming sophistication of Holbein’s gift for verisimilitude.
When Henry VIII died in 1547, it took 18 months to compile an inventory of all his ‘stuff’, stored in 55 palaces, including his extensive art collection. Linda Collins and Siobhan Clarke have produced a brisk, useful introduction to the king as collector, full of intriguing detail about the ways in which Henry went about altering the common European conception of his country as culturally backward and lacking interest in the visual arts. I’m still not convinced that Henry was a connoisseur, or anything more than a consumer of art on a gigantic scale, but undoubtedly his acquisitiveness formed the basis of today’s Royal Collection.
A grisly sketch reproduced by Collins and Clarke caught my eye. It is by Alfred Young Nutt, the Victorian surveyor to St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and depicts Henry VIII’s vault in 1888. Flanked by the coffins of Charles I and Jane Seymour, Henry’s coffin, two metres in length, looks in a state of serious disrepair, with body parts visible, as if someone had set about it with an iron mallet.
The whereabouts of Holbein’s mortal remains are unknown. Collins and Clarke dispute the widely held view that he died from plague. Moyle, on the other hand, constructs a convincing case for Holbein as a victim of the recurrent plague, ‘the Great Death’, which ravaged London in the early 1540s. The Tudor lockdown has obvious, unpleasant resonances. Londoners were forbidden from ‘entering the gates of any house wherein the King or Queen lie’. Facing death in October 1543, Holbein made his will. As for his resting place, the church of St Katharine Cree, near Leadenhall market, in an area popular with the German community, seems most likely. However no inscription has ever been found. For an artist who portrayed death as the great equaliser, it’s appropriate that Hans Holbein was probably hastily buried in a communal plague pit.
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