Holbein at the Tudor Court is both a wondrous show and a tragic one. It’s wondrous because it’s full of Holbeins, and Hans Holbein is one of the dozen or so true geniuses ever to have lifted a paintbrush. It’s tragic because the fates dumped him in the orbit of Henry VIII, thereby thrusting him deep into the problematics of the English Reformation, a cultural earthquake so destructive that it annihilated 1,000 years of native creativity and filled the cosmos with cries of “What if?” Poor Holbein. He should have gone to Paris.
He was born in Germany, in Augsburg, c 1497, but moved to Basel, Switzerland, in his teens because that was where the work was. He became a master craftsman working for the print industry and painted a handful of heartfelt devotional images that marked him out as a religious artist to watch.
The present show, with a cheeky flourish, opens with a scene of Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Christ in the garden after his Crucifixion, the famous Noli me tangere moment, imagined by so many excellent popish artists. Holbein seems to have painted the scene in England on his first visit here, in 1526, when he worked for Sir Thomas More, who was later beheaded by Henry for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy.
The superb portrait of More that Holbein painted in England is now in the Frick Collection in New York, where it hangs opposite Holbein’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell: mortal enemies staring across the popish divide. Dropped into this murderous religious mess, Holbein, who probably had Catholic sympathies but seems cleverly to have kept his mouth shut on the subject, painted More and his family in a group portrait that would have been one of the greatest achievements of European portraiture had it survived. It was destroyed by a fire in 1752. What if …
What is still with us — thrillingly — is the suite of drawings Holbein made for the commission. They remain in the Royal Collection and are on show at the Queen’s Gallery in a ring of startling likenesses that keep proving Holbein’s talents as a draftsman verged on the miraculous: More, blue-eyed, stern, with a five o’clock shadow; his son, John, long-necked, thin, reading a book; his adopted daughter, Anne, looking out over our shoulder, as if she has glimpsed the future.
All this has been done with coloured chalks, finished off with black ink. It’s a way of working that tests the genius of the artist’s hand steeply. Producing portraits that appear as present as Holbein’s do — so alive you would recognise them instantly if you met them in the street — while working with coloured chalks and occasional ink highlights is a measure of artistic greatness that very few have passed. Holbein keeps doing it.
Being able to compare the drawings with the paintings for which they were preparing is also telling. Sir Henry Guildford, a high-up in Henry’s court, looks thoughtful and sad in his drawing, but fierce and determined in his painting. William Reskimer, short-haired, long-bearded, in a proto-hipster fashion, is younger in the drawing than in the painting. In any battle of the truths, the drawings always feel more trustworthy.
All this brings the Tudor court to life more vividly than the entire bookshelf of Hilary Mantel. This is what art can do. It’s what Holbein would later do for Henry VIII when he reinvented him pictorially as the man mountain with the cowboy stance. If Holbein had not given us such a memorable Hal, would the Tudor obsession that still grips us have burnt with such a fire? No, I don’t think it could or would have.
Holbein’s priceless gift to the benighted Tudors was immortality. Having six wives feels like one kind of act when it’s described in the history books — and another when you can meet four of them, and they’re so alive that you feel their breath. A theoretical beheading becomes something different when a pictorial genius is ensuring that neither the victim not the perpetrator can ever fully die.
That said, Henry himself is only stiffly present here. The autograph likenesses of him that survive are scattered about the museum world and the Royal Collection can confront us with only an assortment of copies. By the time Holbein rose high enough in the painterly ranks to paint the king, Henry would tolerate only kingly self-promotion — big paintings of him and his dynasty. None of the miraculous intimacy that Holbein achieved in his drawings is continued here in his portrayals of the king.
The show also has ambitions to bring the Tudor court to life in other ways. The huge suits of armour, made by German craftsmen for the royal King Kong, tower above us in the main gallery: my, what a whopper Henry was! Beautiful goldsmiths’ work, some of it designed by Holbein, glitters gorgeously in the cabinets. A variety of miniatures, by some of Europe’s best hands, enlarge our sense of the Tudor court’s international presence.
I left the show, with a final stare at Holbein’s popish Noli me tangere, thinking: “Britain used to be like this. And it was all destroyed. What if, what if, what if …?”
Holbein at the Tudor Court is at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1, until Apr 14