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‘Holbein at the Tudor Court’

  • Art
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Todd-White Art Photography/Ben Fitzpatrick
Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023. Todd-White Art Photography/Ben Fitzpatrick

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Stripped of the fashions of his day, sat bleakly against a plain blue wall, Johannes Froben doesn’t look like a sixteenth-century printer. In Hans Holbein’s portrait, he could be anyone, at any time. He looks to his left, his hair thinning, his cheeks sagging, his skin sallow, his arms tucked miserably into his black coat. It’s so stark, so quiet, so rueful and heavy with years of worry and effort. Holbein was special. 

And he had to be to make it in the Tudor Court. Arriving from Basel with nothing but a letter of recommendation from humanist philosopher Erasmus, Holbein worked his way to the very top of English society, painting aristocrats, lawyers, politicians, soldiers and, eventually, the king himself. 

This deeply atmospheric show at the Queen’s Gallery brings together sketches and drawings by Holbein into a single vivid portrait of sixteenth-century life. Like any good Tudor story, it starts with war and marriage: there’s a huge battle scene of Henry VIII defeating the French, portraits of impossibly ugly European royals being married off around the continent as political pawns. 

But the first sight you catch of Holbein’s drawings is a group of sketches for a larger portrait of the family of Sir Thomas More, a lawyer who was Holbein’s first proper patron. The drawings are such light, soft things; features barely delineated, the chalk barely pressed to the paper. The lips are thin mists of peach and pink, the eyes gentle, ghostly blues and greys. So much care is given to the tenderness of the faces that they feel close to alive, to real. The clothes, all thick, heavy and rough, frame the faces in dark clouds. They’re beautiful images.

And they helped make Holbein a star. Soon, he was commissioned to paint archbishops and lords. There are a handful of paintings here, but the drawings and preparatory sketches are so intimate and subtle that you barely notice them. Richard Southwell is arrogant and snooty, Lady Ratcliffe stares far too intensely out at the viewer, Sir Henry Guildford is bolshy and heavy, and on and on, dozens of gorgeous portraits.

And then the big job: Henry VIII made Holbein court painter, the ultimate position an artist could hope for. Anne Boleyin and Jane Seymour are his subjects now, Prince Edward is a fat fleshy blob like his father, the Earl of Surrey is thick jawed and grumpy, ten years before being found guilty of treason. There’s endless drama and political intrigue here, if that’s your thing.

But the real gold is in watching a master figure things out, in seeing how Holbein sketches and scratches, erases and crosses out, in finding out how he made images that have survived the centuries, and still somehow look modern today. 

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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