A new 'lost' portrait of Anne Boleyn?
April 13 2016
There was a story in the newspapers (The Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday) over the weekend about a 'newly discovered' portrait of Anne Boleyn. Actually, what has been discovered is an old reproduction (above) of an apparently lost painting - and the fact that it was found on eBay has given the story added legs (although just to be precise, what was being sold on eBay were modern reproductions - for £70 - of a print found in a print shop near Oxford by a former farmer and Tudor portrait enthusiast Howard Jones).
The identity of the sitter as Anne Boleyn has been endorsed by the Tudor historian Alison Weir, and also by Tracy Borman, who is joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Borman says:
I'm very convinced by this. It is hugely exciting. This could well be a Coronation portrait.
The whereabouts of the original painting are reported as being unknown:
The original painting was sold in 1842 from Strawberry Hill, the Twickenham castle to a London art dealer.
He in turn sold it to Ralph Bernal, a British politician and collector who died in 1854.
Then the trail goes cold. Weir said: 'Someone might come forward and say they've got it. They don't realise it now because it's bound to be labelled Lady Bergavenny.'
As far as I can make out, the only evidence here to suggest that the sitter is Anne Boleyn is the letter 'A' at the centre of the necklace, and the repeated 'A's in the headdress, and a 'B' and an 'R' at the left and right of the necklace. These apparently point us to 'Anne Boleyn' and 'Anne Regina', hence the portrait being a coronation portrait. The fashion is also right for a portrait of the 1530s.
But of course, Anne Boleyn was not the only Anne in Tudor Britain, and we might even have to allow the possibility that the sitter was called Alice, or Angela, or some such name. Monogrammed jewels were all the rage in the 1530s, as the many surviving designs by Holbein show. And I think probably we would expect Anne, in a coronation portrait, to have either 'AR' for Anne Regina (as we see in the 1534 coronation medal) or 'HA' for Henry & Anne, which again we know was used by the couple thanks to Holbein's designs, and also from some surviving architectural elements. The use of 'AB', or even just a 'B', in the jewels some Anne Boleyn portraits come from posthumous portraits which we cannot take as reliable indicators of either likeness or what jewels she wore.
The image is not unknown, for it was engraved at least twice in the 19th Century (here and here). Then, the sitter was thought to be Joanna Fitzalan, Lady Bergavenny. This Lady Bergavenny, however, died some time before 1515, and the fashion would appear to rule her out as the sitter in this portrait (though one never knows in Tudor portraiture, and we cannot exclude the possibility that it shows another member of the family). The picture was once at Strawberry Hill, and we must tempted to assume that if there really was any historical chance this sitter might have been Anne Boleyn, then those old iconographical optimists of the 18th and 19th Centuries would have labelled it such.
Anyway, AHNers, I can tell you that the original portrait is not lost, for some years ago I saw a good colour photograph of it. I was shown the photo in strictest confidence by someone who had been asked to look into the possibility that the sitter might be Anne. That person, incidentally, certainly knew their Tudor portrait onions.
Our belief at the time was the sitter was most likely not Anne Boleyn, though the tedious thing is I can't now remember all of our conclusions. There was nothing in the way of provenance, or traditional identification, to lead us down that path. As far as I recall, there was no mathing necklace in any Royal Tudor jewel inventory. But I do remember paying attention to the other motifs in the headdress, and not being able to connect any of them to Anne Boleyn. It's much clearer in the photograph of the actual painting, but the other letter given equal prominence in the headdress alongside the 'A' is what is most likely an 'I' (to see a similar Tudor decorative 'I' see here). It is therefore likely that the sitter in the original portrait is someone called 'AI' or 'IA', with some other initials 'B' and 'R' elsewhere in her or her family's name.
If anyone has any better ideas as to who she is, let me know!
Of course, it's worth remembering that we do in fact have a life portrait of Anne Boleyn by Holbein...
Update - the print itself is now being offered for sale by Howard Jones on Ebay for £1,000. Which is a lot of money for a print of an unknown 16th Century sitter.
Update II - here's a long analysis of the claims (and a sceptical one) from Claire Ridgway, on her blog The Anne Boleyn Files, including a view that the costume is in fact from the 1520s.
Update III - and here's a blog post from Alison Weir (scroll down the page) on why she thinks it might be Anne. I'm afraid it displays some basic misunderstandings about Boleyn's iconography.