Portrait of Henry VIII
|Artist||After Hans Holbein the Younger|
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Location||Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool|
Portrait of Henry VIII is a lost work by Hans Holbein the Younger depicting Henry VIII. While destroyed by fire in 1698 it is still well known today through many copies. It is one of the most iconic images of Henry and is one of the most famed portraits of any British monarch. It was originally created as a mural at the Palace of Whitehall, London, in 1536 or 1537.
Holbein, originally from Germany, had been appointed the English King's Painter in 1536. The portrait was created to adorn the privy chamber of Henry's newly acquired Palace of Whitehall. Henry was spending vast sums to decorate the 23-acre (93,000 m2) warren of residences he had seized after the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. The original mural featured four figures arranged around a marble plinth: Henry, his wife Jane Seymour, and his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The mural was thus commissioned sometime during the brief marriage of Henry and Jane Seymour, likely in 1536 or 1537.
It is a unique image of a European monarch. Henry is posed without any of the standard royal accoutrements such as swords, crowns, or scepters. Rather the majestic presence is conveyed through Henry's aggressive posture. Henry stands proudly erect, directly facing the viewer. His legs are spread apart and arms held from his side in the pose of a warrior or a wrestler. In one hand he holds a glove, while the other reaches towards an ornate dagger hanging at his waist. Henry's clothes and surroundings are ornate, with the original painting using gold leaf to highlight the opulence. The detailed blackwork embroidery is especially notable. He wears an array of jewellery including several large rings and a pair of necklaces. His large codpiece and heavily padded shoulders further enhance the aggressive masculinity of the image.
The painting has frequently been described as a work of propaganda designed to enhance Henry's majesty. It deliberately skews Henry's figure to make him more imposing. Comparisons of surviving sets of Henry's armour show that his legs were much shorter in reality than in the painting. The painting also shows Henry as young and full of health, when in truth he was in his forties and had been badly injured earlier in the year in a tiltyard accident. He was also already suffering from the health problems that would affect the latter part of his life.
Henry recognized the power of the image Holbein created, and encouraged other artists to copy the painting and distributed the various versions around the realm, giving them as gifts to friends and ambassadors. Major nobles would commission their own copies of the painting to show their loyalty to Henry. The many copies made of the portrait explain why it has become such an iconic image, even after the destruction of the original when Whitehall was consumed by fire in 1698. It has had a lasting effect on Henry's public image. For instance Charles Laughton's Oscar winning performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII was modeled after the swaggering Henry depicted by Holbein.
A cartoon done by Holbein in preparation for the portrait work survives in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. The cartoon differs slightly from the final version. Most notably it shows Henry standing in a more traditional three-quarters view rather than the final and iconic head-on position. Also surviving is smaller half-length portrait of Henry by Holbein that is today in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. This only surviving painting of Henry by Holbein was also likely a preparatory work. In it Henry wears much the same clothing as the final mural, but is still posed in a three-quarters view. For many years this painting was owned by the Spencer family and housed at Althorp. Financial problems forced the 7th Earl Spencer to sell much of the art collection, and it was purchased by Heinrich Thyssen.
All the remaining copies of the painting are today attributed to other artists, though in most cases the name of the copier is unknown. They vary dramatically in their quality and fealty to the original source. Most of the reproductions only copy the image of Henry, though a single copy done by Remigius van Leemput in 1667 of the entire mural survives today at Hampton Court. The highest quality, and best known copy, is that currently in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery (illustration), which may have been commissioned by Edward Seymour, Jane's brother.
- Derek Wilson "Was Hans Holbein's Henry VIII the best piece of propaganda ever?" The Telegraph 23 Apr 2009
- Holbein's legacy
- "VIII Revealed." Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
- Walker Art Gallery's Henry
- Weiss Gallery (2012). "Tudor and Stuart Portraits From The Collections of the English Nobility and their Great Country Houses". pp. 14–16. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
- Portraits of King Henry VIII: Hans Holbein and His Legacy.