Overnight, England became a Renaissance player. And more than that. It became a Renaissance hot spot. Holbein wasn’t just a giant in English terms. He is someone to rank alongside the greatest of his contemporaries, all the way up to Titian and Michelangelo. The tragedy is that his spectacular presence didn’t really lead anywhere. The moment he died, somewhere in the City of London in the winter of 1543, the Renaissance died with him. Think of those pictures of Elizabeth I, stiff and decorated, laced up like a lamp stand, and it’s immediately clear that the Middle Ages had come flooding back.
Although no modern exhibition has a hope of capturing the magnitude of his presence, Holbein in England, at Tate Britain, has a superb stab at it. These days, Holbein is celebrated mainly for his portraits: history has obliterated the rest of his output. The portraits need to be looked at from close up, because chief among his talents was a breath-yanking ability to describe stuffs. He’s particularly good at fur. Lean in to inspect the white fur cap worn by Anne Lovell in that outrageously beautiful picture of an utterly tangible and gloriously un-flashy English face that we have been calling Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, and when you’ve finished gasping at the perfectly evoked fur cap fitting so snugly about Lady Lovell’s head — when did an expensive creation in ermine ever make a bigger effort to pass for a modest maid’s bonnet? — make a closer inspection of the red squirrel’s pelt, then of the starling’s feathers. This is a genius at work, who doesn’t need to resort to noisy, painterly effects or extravagant, look-at-me gestures to produce startling portraiture. Holbein knows that the truth, perfectly captured, has an innate nobility to it that cannot be overtaken.
Near the end of the show, after a long journey of gasps and sighs — with all the leaning forward that’s required, it took me three wonderful hours to complete the circuit — there’s a 1533 portrait of the splendidly named Derich Born, a young German buck who worked in the arms trade in London. Leaning on a parapet, dressed in black satins and mimicking that studied Renaissance nonchalance that the Italians had recently perfected, here is someone 500 years ago already imagining he is James Dean.
Holbein was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg, the first important stop in Germany on the principal trade route from Italy. So the Italianate form of the Renaissance filtered quickly through his experience, which is why he donates mock- Italian nonchalance so convincingly to Derich Born from Cologne. Yet, even in his best sitter-flattering mode, Holbein cannot quite turn off the truth. With astonishing subtlety, and probably unknowingly, he has given us a portrait of a boy in a costume: a pasty-faced youth in a big man’s pose. Underneath the parapet, a cocky inscription suggests that the viewer may wonder whether the maker of this truthful image was Holbein or Derich Born’s father. In other words, are we looking at a painting or at flesh and blood?
I could happily dwell on every portrait in the exhibition. There is not one that does not repay close inspection. But to revel in such details and to ignore the bigger picture is to do Holbein and the show a disservice. The fact is that his importance extends far beyond the realm of brilliant portraiture. As the official painter of Henry VIII, as the face-bringer and visualiser of the most turbulent and catastrophic period in the whole of British history, Holbein is embedded more profoundly in this country’s fabric than any other artist.
Even before he started working for mad Henry, history had cast him as a critical witness. Holbein originally came to England in 1528, to work for the doomed Sir Thomas More, and arrived just at the outset of the extraordinary sequence of events that was to result in More’s beheading, the marriage to Anne Boleyn and that volcanic split with the Roman Catholic Church. This isn’t just an important moment in British history whose transfixing details we are enjoying: this is the uber- moment, the one that propels and defines everything that follows. To have an artist as great as Holbein on hand to supply such tactile evidence of these years is a tremendous piece of luck.
And, of course, history in the making doesn’t feel like history at all. Holbein’s first big English commission was for a group portrait of Sir Thomas More and his family. It has disappeared. But the preparatory drawings of individual members of the family remain. They are unbelievably tangible. While More maintains the stiff seriousness of the head of the clan, the rest of his tribe — the youngest daughter with the darting eyes, the melancholy second daughter, the merry father with the foolish grin — become abruptly real in a suite of magnificent chalk drawings. We are still in happy Catholic England. There are no storm clouds.
In 1528, Holbein returned to Basel. Perhaps he felt some trouble brewing. With Basel’s own nasty iconoclasts already insisting on the sinfulness of art, however, there was no work at home. So he came back in 1532, thank God. This time he seems to have entered the service of the king straight away. A lovely chalk drawing by him of a possible Anne Boleyn is followed by most of the hapless royal wives. These many wives of Henry VIII are brought together for the first time, in a vivid peep through history’s window.
The single most important point that the show is trying to make is that Holbein wasn’t just a flawless portraitist, but a proper Renaissance artist, a universal talent who could turn his hand to lots of crafts. Brought up in goldsmith circles, he certainly had a natural affinity with details and microcosms. While working for Henry, he designed jewellery, dagger hilts, fireplaces, book covers and entire decorative cycles that have now disappeared. Perusing the scant remaining evidence, I was struck by the fluidity of the drawings he made for Henry’s decorations. When the job demanded quick wrists and racy Italianate curves, that stillness of his portraiture could be switched off instantly.
The show does its best, too, to unveil Holbein as a religious artist, with scattered evidence of what must have been a significant area of his output. But religion was a dangerous topic in those extraordinary years, and that aspect of Holbein’s universality seems never to have been fully unleashed. What he obviously could attempt, however, was muscular historic portraiture on a grand scale.
Basically, Holbein invented Henry VIII. Henry may have had something of the look about him that Holbein’s fabulously iconic image finalised. But I doubt it was much. Out of fatness, Holbein created heroic monumentality; out of a demented lecher, he gave us a classic monarch among monarchs.
It’s an enormous irony that this instinctive truth-teller should have managed to tell such a great lie about Henry. But then Holbein was a proper Renaissance artist, and could do it all.