Tudors by Holbein. From the court of England's Henry VIII

15th January 2017
One of the most compelling reasons so many of us are fascinated by the Tudors is that they serve as a bridge between the medieval period and modern times. Theirs is a tantalising space in the middle of European history in which 'survival of the fittest' reluctantly gives way to something new and far more acceptable: a kind of 'primacy of the cleverest,' instead.

It is the basis of the civilised society that we recognise today. And of all the artists and painters at work in those years, no one perhaps demonstrates this evolutionary transition quite as naturally, or as splendidly as the artist Hans Holbein (c. 1497-1543). One of my all-time favourites.
16th century artist, Holbein, in half profile with beard
Holbein Self-portrait.


Holbein, or Johannas Holbein the Younger to give him his full title (his father was also a painter) was of German/Swiss origin. He came to England on two occasions. And it was during his 2nd more prolonged visit, from 1532-43, when he was employed intensively at the court of Henry VIII, that some of his most important work was achieved. This was during that violent and tempestuous period at the beginning of the English Reformation when the King broke so destructively from the Church of Rome. Holbein saw much of the drama at close quarters. He witnessed all the heartache, romance and treachery of those years. Consequently, his portraits provide us today with a unique and intimate glimpse into that extraordinary world.

Some of his paintings are very familiar, including his incisive portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More:
two distinguished Tudor gentlemen seated
Two notable 'Thomases' - More and Cromwell.
And who has not seen and wondered at the meaning behind the enigmatic 'Ambassadors?'
double portrait of two distinguished Tudor ambassadors at the court of Henry VIII
The Ambassadors, 1533.


However, of all the portraits, it is the simple drawings that have always seemed to me so much more revealing. Holbein must have done hundreds of them. These were intended only as preparatory sketches at the time. Consequently, there was no need to flatter the sitter unduly, or to be overly concerned about detail. It gives them a strangely modern appearance. Fresh and spontaneous.
side-by-side montage of two sketches by Holbein, of a man and a woman
Sketches - Queen Anne Boleyn (possibly) and statesman and poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Quickly and without fuss

By necessity, with his sketches, Holbein had to get the essentials of the subject down on paper quickly and without fuss. His work is therefore perhaps the nearest we have to a faithful record of the appearance of the men and women of those days. And there really are so many extraordinary characters among them.
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Holbein video

I had been wondering for some time how the sketches might appear when set alongside one another. And I was surprised at how many similarities there are between them. There is a consistency of materials used, of placement of sitters etc. There is a consistency of proportion and style. From that, I settled on the idea, over the long Christmas period, of trying to merge a number of these wonderful images together in a video. I added some period music - in this instance, by John Dowland. He flourished a little later, in fact, at the court of Elizabeth. But the lively Galliard dances that I found seemed just right to accompany such wonderful images. It has been great fun.

Anyway, I'm sure Holbein and his amazing art can say all of this far more eloquently that I ever can. So here, without further ado, is the video itself (images sourced from Wikipedia {{PD-Art}}, music by John Dowland).
Tudors by Holbein
Tudors by Holbein (on Vimeo)
Also available on Youtube.
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Who's who?

But who were all these distinguished people? Where possible, I have put some names to the faces - the thumbnail images of the portraits (62 in total) being presented all together on the page appended to this article. Just click here or on the image below to go there.
composite of small thumbnail images of Tudor people
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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