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Portrait of King Henry VIII 1540c. | by lisby1
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Portrait of King Henry VIII 1540c.

Phillip Mould:


The recent rediscovery of this important portrait represents a significant addition to the iconography of Henry VIII. Holbein’s emphatically dominating mural portrait of Henry VIII in the Royal Palace at Whitehall has come to define the image of Henry VIII as the strong, statuesque Tudor monarch. Its destruction by fire in the seventeenth century has meant that only two portraits of Henry VIII by Holbein himself survive: the much smaller and more intimate head and shoulders portrait in the Thyssen Collection; and one half of the cartoon for the mural, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.


History’s most striking images of Henry have therefore depended on a small number of highly finished portraits produced by talented followers from within Holbein’s circle, and perhaps even his own workshop. It has long been thought that were only two high quality versions of the three-quarter length portrait derived from the Whitehall mural; one in the Royal Collection, and the other in the National Gallery of Art, Rome. The Hamilton portrait now represents a third version.


A lack of comparable technical evidence makes it difficult to ascertain if all three are by the same hand. All three versions are almost identical in pose and dimensions, suggesting that the same cartoon was used for each (the presence of pouncing marks under infra-red examination confirms that the Hamilton portrait was based on a cartoon). The three portraits also share Holbein’s trademark blue smalt background – but they differ in costume, confirming the apparent rule that no two commissioned portraits of a monarch should be identical. The dendrochronological suggestion of an earliest felling date of 1538 for the panels used in this portrait dates the portrait to well within Holbein’s lifetime. It seems, therefore, that although there is insufficient evidence on Holbein’s working practice to know if he certainly employed studio assistants, this portrait was undoubtedly completed by one who was well acquainted with his techniques and designs. Certainly, the fine detailing in this example rivals that of the Rome version (considered until recently to be by Holbein himself), while the drawing seen here, such as in the dagger’s hilt, is entirely redolent of the vigour and exquisite draughtmanship of Holbein’s own designs.


The provenance of this portrait is particularly important. This picture was sold by the present Duke of Hamilton & Brandon, marking the completion of a gradual dispersal of one of the greatest picture collections yet assembled in Britain. The dispersal began with a famous sale in 1882, with more sales following the demolition of Hamilton Palace in the 1930s. Until now, the present portrait has hung at Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, of which the Dukes of Hamilton are hereditary Keepers.


The portrait is first recorded as being in the possession of James, 3rd Marquess of Hamilton KG, and later 1st Duke of Hamilton. He was a noted favourite of Charles I, the King signing his letters ‘Your faithful friend and loving cousin, Charles R’. Hamilton was not only an ardent Royalist, but, after Charles himself, perhaps the greatest art collectors of his generation – thought it should be remembered occasionally Hamilton and Charles’ mutual art collecting had positive political benefits for the Duke. Hamilton’s father was a noted collector, and his brother-in-law, Basil Feilding, was ambassador to Venice, and acted as art agent to him and the King. Between 1634-39 Hamilton purchased over 400 pieces, mostly through acquiring entire collections in Europe. He also bought works of art while campaigning in Germany, and gave, exchanged and sold paintings to Charles I (of which more below). As Master of the Horse and Gentleman to the King’s Bedchamber, Hamilton lived in Whitehall Palace, occupying a suite of about 20 rooms, as well as maintaining accommodation at Hampton Court, which he used to house part of his picture collection. He was building a large house in Chelsea, with a gallery to house his pictures, when the approaching Civil War intervened. Unable to resist acquiring works offered him; ‘[I am] to much bewitched with those intysing things’.’


As a great collecting family, the Hamiltons were astute in keeping inventories of their pictures. The earliest inventory is dated 1624, and lists the collection of the 1st Duke’s father, the 2nd Marquess. There is no mention here of a portrait of Henry VIII, nor in the subsequent inventories from between 1634-9, entitled ‘Note of pictures for my Lord Marquis from my Lord Fielding’. This would suggest that the picture was not in the collection of the 1st Duke’s father, and nor was it acquired from abroad.


An inventory [MSS5] dated pre- 1643 of the 1st Duke’s pictures, headed ‘A Catalogue of My Lord Marquis’s pictures’ lists over thirty cases (it is possible that this refers to pictures packed in cases for Hamilton’s journey from London to Scotland c. 1638, as tensions between King and Parliament grew.) Here the ‘Thirty One Case’ contains one ‘Kinge Harry 8th’. A later inventory dated 1643-49 [MSS6] contains a similar list of cases, but not a case 31. Instead there is ‘In the Closet’ a ‘King Henry, the 8 picture’ [location unstated]. An inventory dated 1704 [MSS12] ‘A List of His Grace’s the Duke of Hamiltons pictures in the Abby of Holyrood House, taken this 5 day of October 1704,as they are now hung an numbred, the numbers being on the forepart of some, and on the back of Others’, reveals, ‘In the Great Dining Roome’ of Holyroodhouse, a ‘square picture [no. 154] of King Hnery 8th a halfe length by Holbin.’ It seems almost certain therefore that the present portrait was acquired by the 1st Duke of Hamilton in the 1630s, and has hung in Holyrood since at least 1704.


The question then arises as to where the Duke of Hamilton acquired the portrait. First, it seems certain the picture did not come from Fielding’s purchases in Italy. Germany seems a possible, though unlikely, source with Hamilton writing to Charles I about acquiring paintings and sculptures in Munich . No detailed list survives of any purchases in Germany, however, and it seems most of these were acquired for Charles I. It therefore seems most likely that an English source is the most probable.


Though there is at present no documentary evidence that suggests a direct source, it is possible that the Hamilton portrait may have come from Charles I himself, not least because we know that Hamilton was at the nexus of art collecting in England with Charles from between 1620s to 1640s. There is plenty evidence of pictures being given or exchanged with the Hamilton in Van der Doort’s inventory of Charles I’s collection . Indeed, we know that Charles gave Hamilton’s father, the 2nd Marquess of Hamilton, a portrait by Holbein; Van der Doort tells us of a picture “Chaunged with the decd Lo. Marquess of Hambleton when yor Maatie was Prince” “Item a little intire Picture with a little white dogg lying by, said to be the Lord Daker – Comprtoller to King Henry the 8ts houshould” [p.78 in the Walpole edition, St James’ Cabinet Room no. 9] Van der Doort lists 13 pictures either given, exchanged, or bought by Charles I with the 1st Duke of Hamilton. Furthermore, the presence of Rubens’ Daniel in the Lions’ Den in the 1643 Hamilton inventory confirms that exchanges either continued between Charles I and Hamilton post the 1639 date of Van der Doort’s inventory (for it appears in the 1639 inventory of the Royal Collection with no note by Van der Doort of an exchange or gift to Hamilton) or that Van der Doort’s keeping of records was not overly accurate as far as Charles’ dealings with the Hamilton’s were concerned. It seems unlikely that the exchanges of art continued between Charles and Hamilton after the latter’s move to Scotland in 1638.


Though there is no direct evidence, for example in Van der Doort’s inventory of Charles I’s collection, of a Henry VIII passing from Charles I’s collections in Whitehall - but there were many other palaces from where exchanges or gifts could have been made. It seems that there is evidence from, for example, the inventories of King Edward VI, that there were a number of paintings of Henry VIII for Charles to exchange or give away. There are at least eight contemporary examples of what we would now call ‘portraits’ of Henry VIII in the Royal Collection in the mid sixteenth century. Two are of the King when young, one is listed as a ‘physionamy’ (head and shoulders), two are listed as ‘whole stature’, and one, intriguingly, as ‘nott finished’. The two portraits of Henry VIII when young were still in the Royal Collection in 1639. However, both the ‘whole statures’, the ‘nott finished’, the ‘physionomye’, the diptych, and one other portrait of Henry VIII appear to have left the Royal Collection according to Van der Doort. This supposition would appear to be confirmed by at most four portraits of Henry VIII in the Commonwealth Sales of the Royal Collection after the execution of Charles I.


p139 Scally, Political Career of James, Duke of Hamilton PhD thesis, Cambridge 1992

30th April 1632, SRO GD406/1/158, Burnet's Memoirs, p.28.

Walpole Soceity, 27th Volume 1958-1960, Abraham Van Der Doort’s Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I, edited by Oliver Millar.

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Taken on December 11, 2007