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Enemies and allies at Henry VIII's court reunite in a new exhibition at The Queen's Gallery
Hans Holbein the Younger, 'Noli me Tangere', 1526-8. Photo: Royal Collection Trust © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

LONDON.- The court of Henry VIII was characterised by political intrigue and betrayal. Careers were made and lives lost by courtiers vying for the King’s favour – or daring to defy him. More than 500 years on, the enemies and allies from Henry’s court are reunited at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, in the exhibition The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, opened on Friday, 2 November.

The exhibition celebrates the Renaissance in northern Europe through the work of some of the finest artists of the age, including Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and François Clouet. It brings together paintings, drawings, prints, manuscripts, sculpture, tapestries and armour, and includes 27 works by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who immortalised many of the key personalities of Henry’s court.

Among the greatest portraitists of all time, Holbein achieved the status of ‘King’s Painter’, the highest position available to an artist in England. One of Holbein’s most impressive surviving portraits is of Henry VIII’s close friend, Sir Henry Guildford (1527). On the King’s accession in 1509, Guildford was appointed Esquire of the Body (personal attendant) and Master of Revels. In this role he was responsible for lavish entertainments, which included morris dancers, moving stages and a series of elaborate costumes for the King. His influence was cut short in 1519 when older statesmen attempted to curb the influence of hot-headed young men such as Guildford on the 28-year-old monarch. He soon returned to court and rose to the distinguished position of Comptroller of the Royal Household, a post he kept until his death in 1532 – a mark of his friendship with Henry.

Guildford was one of the first to commission a portrait from Holbein when the artist arrived in England in 1526. He is shown richly dressed in velvet, fur and cloth of gold, holding his staff of office. The preparatory drawing, done from life, also survives in the Royal Collection and is displayed alongside. It reveals how Holbein flattered the sitter in the finished portrait, lengthening his face so it appears slimmer, perhaps at Guildford’s request.

Holbein’s portraits also record those who fell out of favour with the King. One of the most prominent figures in the country, Sir Thomas More, is the subject of a chalk study, c.1526-7. The social philosopher and humanist was Holbein’s first patron and landlord when the artist arrived in London. More was appointed to the senior post of Lord Chancellor by Henry VIII in 1529, but six years later he defied the King through his opposition to the Act of Succession and separation from the Catholic Church. He was imprisoned and subsequently executed.

A chalk study of the man who betrayed More, Sir Richard Southwell (1536), is also included in the exhibition. A controversial figure, Southwell was a Norfolk landowner and Justice of the Peace. He was careful to ally himself with rising stars and to desert them as they fell. Southwell was drawn at the age of 33 by Holbein, who noted to himself on the sheet that the sitter’s eyes were ‘a little yellowish’. Although Southwell knew that the evidence against the ex-Chancellor had been falsified, he failed to speak up in defence of More. Southwell’s testimony was also responsible for the downfall of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed for treason in January 1547.

Holbein rarely painted three-quarter-length portraits and did so only for those that held the highest positions at court, such as Sir Henry Guildford and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (c.1539). The Duke was a powerful noble and uncle to Henry’s second and fifth wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, as well as godfather to Henry’s son, Prince Edward. The portrait in the exhibition captures the Duke while still an influential figure at court and gives him an imposing presence – he was in fact described by the Venetian ambassador as ‘small and spare in person’. In 1546, Howard was imprisoned for high treason, but avoided his sentence through a twist of fate: Henry VIII died the night before the Duke’s planned execution.

The exhibition also includes an unusual chalk portrait of Lady Grace Parker, c.1540-43. She is shown confronting the viewer with a steady gaze, rather than facing to left or right, as was usual in Holbein’s portraits. Grace, who may have been one of Jane Seymour’s ladies married Sir Henry Parker in 1523 when she was eight.

Holbein produced many portraits of Henry VIII’s family, including the drawing of Jane Seymour (c.1536-7) that was used in the creation of the famous Whitehall Mural, one of the artist’s most important works. The large mural at Whitehall Palace showed the King and his third wife with the King’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. It was destroyed by fire in 1698, but a copy, made in 1667 by the Flemish artist Remigius van Lemmput, is shown in the exhibition.

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