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Holbein in England

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Holbein's Henry VIII, a copy of the Whitehall mural, which burned.

When he first arrived in England from Basel in 1526, Hans Holbein was broke. He hoped 'to scrape a few angels together'. He was looking for English men and women who wanted a self-portrait and were willing to pay in gold coins stamped with the Archangel Michael.

He found them. Or rather, they found him. Eventually the entire court found its way to his door, rather as if he were the Tudors' Richard Avedon.

Without much English under his belt, Holbein silently observed the fears and desires he saw in the faces of his sitters. Undistracted by conversation he did not understand, he saw into people – strong, educated women, young, determined girls, headstrong men, corrupt, idealistic, or brutal servants of the King. Holbein’s hand captures them – especially he captures their eyes.

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Sir Thomas More, who died for his principles, but also, ruthlessly, forced other men to die for theirs. The Frick Collection, New York

Holbein’s pencil drawings are fresh and immediate, as if the sitter, absent an odd Tudor hat, were still alive and strolling in Hampton Court. The paintings with their smoldering velvets and caressable furs look their period, but the faces are alive. The quality of the painting is so vivid it's no wonder that Henry VIII ordered Holbein to paint his portrait.

The King had everything; Holbein had nothing except the tools of his trade and genius. Yet it is possible that Henry VIII owes the artist everything, for Holbein created an iconic image of Henry, which blazes with power.

You're familiar with Henry's lurid marital history and his break with Rome, but it's Holbein’s painting you remember. The glaring white stockings on the King pull your eyes to his strong, planted legs, as if men approached him on their knees. Your gaze travels up, over an embellishment assuredly odd to modern eyes, up over Henry's bejewelled clothes, which trumpet power and wealth, up until you meet his commanding face and his imperious, cold, and supremely confident eyes. Once seen, never forgotten.

When Henry was trying to select his fourth wife, he sent Holbein to Europe to paint the portraits of a number of ladies. He was delighted with Holbein’s painting of Anne of Cleves, but not with the lady when he met her in person. Anne could not speak English, and struck Henry as dull and unappealing. Holbein spoke her language, and has painted her with a slightly amused look in her eyes.

Obliged to marry Anne, Henry never consummated the marriage, and is supposed to have described her as a Flanders mare. Presumably this was an ironic remark, as Henry's Flanders mares were the best brood mares in his stable.

Henry's ministers choreographed an end to the marriage. Anne was made Henry's sister, and he set her up in a fine home at Richmond, and married a lady more to his liking. Anne was happy to be free of Henry and Cleves.

A year after they had first met, on January 3rd, she rode over to visit the king from her house in Richmond. She had discarded the dowdy clothes she had worn when first meeting Henry, and had gifts for Henry’s new queen. For Henry she brought two horses with violet velvet trappings. You might like to imagine they were Flanders mares.

Tate Britain’s Holbein in England showcases one of the world’s great artists. He was able to create due to the patronage of the English. The sheer beauty of his paintings and drawings has always captured observers, and biographies of his sitters increase their fascination. For show details, TATE BRITAIN .

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