Anne Boleyn regains her head
December 15 2011
Picture: Royal Collection
This isn't 'news' as such, but in a foray into the Tudor realms of Twitter last night I mentioned the drawing of Anne Boleyn by Holbein in the Royal Collection (above). I said that although in the past the identity was doubted by art historians, the sitter was now catalogued with certainty as 'Anne Boleyn', as you can see on the Royal Collection website. This prompted a flurry of curious tweets on the evidence behind the identity. So here it is.
There used to be an article online in The Times detailing how research by myself and David Starkey had helped confirm the identity. But it has now disappeared behind the paywall. So below the jump, and online for the first time, is the article I wrote for an exhibition at Philip Mould in 2006 called 'Lost Faces - Identity & Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture', which was guest curated by David. The article was in the context of a fine but posthumous portrait of Anne we had borrowed from Hever Castle, Anne's childhood home (below). The Royal Collection have found all the evidence compelling enough to change their cataloguing of the drawing (saying 'this is a rare surviving portrait of Anne'), which is very pleasing. Let me know if you agree (or disagree)!
The text is taken from the catalogue, so ignore figure numbers etc. I cannot reproduce all the supporting illustrations, but where possible I have included links to them. The footnote numbers are in bold.
Catalogue No. 12 English School, Sixteenth Century. Portrait of Anne Boleyn. Oil on Panel: 31 × 25 inches, 79 × 65 cm. Provenance: Mrs K Radclyffe; On loan from Hever Castle
There is only one of Henry VIII’s wives for whom we have no life portrait, and ironically she is the most famous of them all: Anne Boleyn. Instead, her identity is known to us only through a handful of later ‘corridor portraits’, of which this is the finest, and most probably the earliest. As with all posthumous portraits, however, they are subject to the historical, political, and visual prejudices of those who created and commissioned them. They cannot give us an accurate picture of what Anne really looked like.
[If on the homepage, click 'Read on' for the whole article]
Anne's surviving portraiture dates from the latter half of the sixteenth century. Most would have derived from sets of Henry’s six wives, and would have been commissioned as part of a historical narrative. Thus Anne is invariably shown as something of a wicked witch, the arch manipulator whose sexual allure drove Henry into the break with Rome: a portrayal clearly visible in the black dress, cold eyes and pale skin seen here. This portrait-type conforms to the later, Catholic view of hostile observers such as Nicholas Sanders, who in 1586 wrote, ‘Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat’.1
The contemporary sources reveal a different picture. In fact, Anne was, according to an observer in 1531, ‘good looking, of a rather dark complexion’.2 Her hair colour was certainly not black, and probably brunet, as recorded by her admirer Thomas Wyatt, although some portraits show her with lighter hair.3 There appears to be only one certain contemporary image of Anne that survives — a portrait medallion inscribed ‘A.R. The Moost Happi. Anno 1534’ (Fig. 39). It is badly rubbed, and useful only for showing Anne’s relatively long face and the hint of a prominent lower jaw (not unlike Elizabeth I’s), which accords well with Cat. 12. We do know, however, from another contemporary source that Sanders’ description of a swelling under her chin was probably correct.4
So far, so mysterious. But can it really be right that no contemporary image of Anne exists? She was highly cultured, interested in the arts, and schooled in continental courtly manners. And, most importantly of all, she was the first royal patron of Europe’s most gifted artist, Hans Holbein. He designed an arch for her coronation procession, numerous items of jewellery, and a New Year’s gift for Anne to give Henry. It is surely inconceivable that she did not at some point sit for her portrait.
Two exquisite drawings by Holbein are therefore worth further examination. Both are inscribed as showing Anne, but are clearly different sitters. The first, and the romantic favourite, shows a sultry beauty we can easily see as Henry’s temptress [British Museum, Fig. 38]. The drawing was inscribed as Anne in a seventeenth century script and was engraved thus by Hollar in 1649. Alas, this pretty sitter is too young to be Anne. The drawing has been convincingly discounted by, among others, John Rowlands.5 The second drawing, also identified by inscription, is in the Royal Collection (Fig. 37). It appears, on first inspection, to be a most unqueenly portrait. The sitter wears an undercap, a night gown and a simple chemise. The presence of a Wyatt coat of arms on the reverse of the drawing has led some to incorrectly suspect the sitter is a member of that family.6 However, I would like to restate here an earlier suggestion that the sitter is, in fact, Anne Boleyn.7
The most important evidence is the inscription, top left, ‘Anna Bollein Queen’. Similar inscriptions appear on the majority of Holbein drawings in the Royal Collection. The inscriptions themselves are not contemporary to the drawings, but we know from an early reference (1590) that they derive from original identities ‘subscribed by Sr John Cheke Secretary to King Edward the 6’,8 when the ‘great booke’ as it was known, belonged to the Earl of Arundel. Cheke (Fig. 42) was one of the bright brains of the Tudor court. He would have known most of Holbein’s sitters if not on personal terms, then at least visually. In 1544 he became tutor to Edward VI. It was probably then that Cheke identified the sitters for the benefit of the young prince, who we know took a keen interest in the book. Cheke began his career at court under the patronage of none other than Anne Boleyn. It seems inconceivable that he would get Anne’s identification wrong.
Most authorities have dismissed the validity of the ‘Anna Bollein’ inscription due to other apparent inconsistencies and errors in the Cheke identifications.9 However, recent research suggests they may be more accurate than is assumed. K. T. Parker’s excellent catalogue of the Windsor drawings, published in 1945, lists a total of sixty four drawings, then attributed to Holbein, which bear inscriptions derived from Cheke’s original annotations.10 Of these, only nine identifications are seriously questioned, among them the drawing of Anne. And of these nine, only two sitters, I suggest, can be certainly erroneous. The most obvious Cheke error was thought to be a drawing inscribed ‘Iohn Colet Dean of St Paul’s’ [Parker 59]. Colet died in 1519, long before Holbein arrived in England. However, Susan Foister has shown that Holbein’s drawing was taken from a bust by Torrigiano. Holbein was clearly willing to draw subjects without life sittings, as, for example, his oil portrait of Melanchthon shows [Niedersachsisches Landesmuseum, Hanover]. Until recently it was believed that Melanchthon sat to Holbein, but, as John Rowlands demonstrated, this cannot be the case.11 It is possible, therefore, that Holbein first sketched the likeness from his imagination, drawing from a number of different sources. If so, we cannot any longer rule out the inscription on a drawing at Windsor inscribed ‘Phil. Melanchton’ [Parker 68] on the grounds that it does not exactly replicate the final painting. The likeness between and the finished oil is close enough – and the sitter is clearly continental, to judge from his hat.
Another apparent Cheke error has been assumed to be the misidentification of a drawing inscribed ‘The Lady Mary after Queen’ [Parker 41] (Fig. 40). On first inspection it seems unlikely that the sitter is Mary Tudor. The pretty carefree sitter in Holbein’s drawing seems so unlike that the sour prude seen in Antonio Mor’s portraits of Mary (Fig. 41). But I believe that the Holbein drawing certainly is Mary. A study of the jewellery allows a positive identification to be made. The sitter wears jewellery also seen in Master John’s portrait of Mary of 1544 [NPG 428, Fig. 4], in which the likeness, too, is similar. Unfortunately the central jewel in the drawing is too rubbed to certainly identify, but the rough outline is closely comparable to the jewel seen at Mary’s neck in the John portrait. The jewel can be found in Mary’s inventory of Jewels; ‘Itm A flower wt five great Diamonds, ij rubies, oon Emerawde, and a great ple pendunte’. The unusually large pearls around Mary’s neck are also identical with those in the John portrait, and these too can be found in Mary’s inventory. They are, depending on how she wore them, either; ‘Itm a lace of great ples for hir graces Necke conteyning lxvij. Ples’, or, ‘Item a lace for her to goo once a bought her grace necke conteynig xxvj. greate perle’.12
Three further previously questioned Cheke identities are; ‘Edward Prince of Wales’ [Parker 71], ‘Ormond’ [Parker 23], and ‘The Dutchess of Suffolk’ [Parker 56]. But these need not challenge Cheke’s accuracy either. The first, Edward, we can confidently prove is correct, for the same face pattern can be found on a rare series of portraits of Edward at the age of about four (Fig. 43). The portraits were almost certainly taken from Holbein’s drawing, and have always been accepted as Edward. In the painted version Edward holds a Lancastrian rose. The drawing of ‘Ormond’ has been shown not be Thomas Boleyn, as was presumed, but James Butler, ninth Earl of Wiltshire & Ormond,13 thus clearing up any confusion over the sitter’s dates. Finally, there has been some confusion which ‘Dutchess of Suffolk’ Holbein shows, an issue discussed below in some detail by Alisdair Hawkyard.
This leaves just two erroneously inscribed drawings from the More family group portrait. The first is ‘The Lady Barkley’ [Parker 4] but is in fact Elizabeth Dauncey, More’s daughter. The second is inscribed ‘Mother Iak’ [Parker 8], but shows Margaret Giggs, More’s adopted daughter. We can surely forgive Cheke these errors, for the drawings date from Holbein’s first trip to England between 1526–8, well before Cheke came to court.14
Which leaves us with Anne. On simple probability alone, the chances of the inscription being erroneous are slim. And, as mentioned above, Anne is one of the sitters Cheke was least likely to get wrong. Similarly, one would struggle to see why, if a later inscriber was casting around for a portrait to call Anne among the drawings, he would have alighted on an image that least resembles the modern conception of a queen. I do not believe that the likeness in Fig. 37 is totally dissimilar to the later portraits of Anne, such as that exhibited here. The raised nose, long face and slightly prominent jaw are comparable. The chin in the drawing is perhaps swollen, and would accord with Anne’s alleged facial misfortune. And the unusually simple costume is another argument in favour of Anne, for only a woman of the highest rank would have taken such a liberty in court circles. Privacy and royalty rarely went together. The Queen’s Privy Chamber was in fact a rather public place. Henry too was known to receive visitors ‘in a nyght gown’.15
There is no conclusive proof that the sitter in the Windsor drawing is Anne. And yet the case in favour of it being her is strong. At the very least, we should view with a healthy scepticism those later portraits that show Anne as a dark and vaguely frightening figure.