Remembering Holbein – Tudor genius. An indefinite ending

21st November 2013
I read the other day, and I was shocked, that the great Tudor artist Hans Holbein probably died 'somewhere between 7th October and 29th November 1543.' What! Do we really know so little about this fine gentleman? He who has left us so many of the most iconic images of the court of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Do we not even have a date for his passing?

I suppose it is forgivable, that we only know the year of his birth c 1497 with no further details. But the ending - after so many achievements, after being the most celebrated of 16th-century court painters. Not to be recorded with any certainty? How sad.

His judgement of character

What is so special about Holbein is that his images, and especially his drawings, are so utterly natural and human. We we feel we might almost know the characters portrayed therein. As if we could quite easily pop outside and meet a similar face in the street, albeit in somewhat different attire! So very few artists have ever captured the beauty, cunning, intrigue and nobility, all the conflicting emotions and desires visible upon the human countenance quite as well as Holbein.
trio of Tudor faces by Holbein, drawings with a little colour
Some of Holbein's sketches fom the court of Henry VIII.

Holbein - beginnings

Hans Holbein was German by birth and is usually referred to as Holbein the Younger because he was taught his craft by his father (the Elder). He became a member of the Basel artists' guild in 1519 and thereafter travelled widely. This included a visit to England as early as 1526. He eventually settled in England in 1532 where he became the leading court painter to the Tudor nobility. Famed for his great portraits (including the Kings Henry VIII and Edward VI) he was also commissioned, probably by Anne Boleyn, to produce the mysterious 'Ambassadors' painting of 1533. He also designed stage scenery and architectural pieces, along with items of metalwork and jewellery.
full-length portrait of two distinguished Tudor gentlemen
Those inscrutable ambassadors of 1533.


And yet it will always be his drawings that will remain, for me at any rate, his greatest achievements. Those swift, spontaneous sketches that capture a fleeting moment in time. Combine these with Hobein's natural ability to penetrate beneath the surface, and they become very special.

And do I have a favourite? Well yes, probably the one that scholars argue over so much – the one purported to be that of Queen Anne Boleyn.
young Tudor woman in french hood, sketch
Possibly Anne Boleyn, by Hans Holbein.
As almost every contemporary likeness of her was destroyed after her death, this would indeed be a precious piece. If it were the case. In fact, opinions differ. Most modern experts believe it not to be her. It is simply classified these days as an 'unknown woman,’ therefore. Personally, and though I can furnish you with no rational argument or academic evidence for the assertion, I do believe it is Anne Boleyn.

Thomas Wyatt

My second favourite would be the fabulous drawing of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet. Wyatt is said to have introduced the sonnet form into the English language. Later to be taken up so successfully by Shakespeare, o course. Queen Anne and Wyatt knew each other quite well, by the way. They were neighbours when young. Wyatt's romantic attachment to Anne, some say, rivaled that of the king. Both of these outstanding individuals, luminaries from the Tudor era, appear in my novel The Arrow Chest.
Tudor gentleman with cap and long beard
The Tudor poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt, by Holbein.
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I do love Holbein and his drawings. Until we can invent time travel, they bring us closer to the past than anything else. They allow us to speculate on other lives, on other thoughts and dreams in a way which is quite remarkable and unique. To see more, in video format, click on the link below.
A video compilation of the work of Hans Holbein. Music by Elizabethan court composer John Dowland.

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