Not Henry VIII's 'last portrait'

January 16 2014

Image of Not Henry VIII's 'last portrait'

Picture: The Times

A new dendrochronological analysis of the above portrait of Henry VIII at Longleat House has led to some incorrect news reporting. The Mail, for example, reported the following:

The painting was previously thought to be a portrait of the king painted after his death. Now, after thorough scientific examination of the oak, experts believe Henry VIII may have posed for an unknown artist in 1544, three years before his death. The wood is believed to date back to 1529.

The painting has an inscription on it stating that it was painted when the Monarch was aged 54, in the 36th year of his reign, but it was common for information to be placed on later copies.

But a closer look at the inscription showed it had been added at the same time the portrait was created.

Then we have this quote from a Tudor historian:

Elizabeth Norton, an author and historian of the Tudor monarchy, said: 'He died in January 1547 and suffered from ill-health for much of 1546. There aren’t any paintings of him depicted as as old man.

'It may well be the last painting that he posed for.'

Readers even half familiar with Tudor iconography will know, however, that the Longleat picture is merely a (very good, by the look of it) replica of Holbein's best surviving face-on portrait of Henry in Rome,* which can be dated to 1540 and is inscribed as showing the king at the age of 49. In the Rome picture, as in the Longleat replica, Henry is shown wearing the clothes he wore for his marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1539. So it isn't at all possible that the Longleat picture, which is inscribed as showing the king aged 54, is a life portrait.

In fact, Holbein's original portrait of the king in this full-frontal pose, for which Henry must presumably have sat, was the c.1536 mural at Whitehall palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1698, after a laundry maid left some washing too close to a fire. The mural was recorded in 1667 by Remigius van Leemput:

Some years ago I re-created (after many hours on Photoshop) a digital, life-size recreation of Holbein's mural for an exhibition in the Philip Mould gallery guest-curated by Dr David Starkey, called 'Lost Faces'. Contemporary accounts of the original mural reported people 'trembling' in front of it. And when I stood before the replica at full scale I could understand why. For a tudor spectator, Holbein's extraordinary realism, combined with the relatively confined and probably quite gloomy space the mural was in, must have convinced some that they were in the presence of some sort of royal witchcraft. Most people then, of course, would never have seen a work of art on such a scale before, and nor such a good one. 

Finally, contrary to what Elizabeth Norton says, there are indeed portraits which show the king as an older man, as seen in the example below (from the National Portrait Gallery) in which he is shown with what must be one of the blingiest walking sticks in history:

As to the Longleat picture's value, which the newspapers inevitably speculated on, then I would say it comes in at around the level of the Studio of Holbein portrait sold recently at Christie's for £650k. This last picture was one of the first Tudor portraits I researched, and it was fun to find it in the inventories of the Dukes of Hamilton. 

The Longleat story was also in the Times today.

Update - a reader writes:

I have the same reaction to all these portraits of Henry VIII: that was one very, very frightening man!!

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