A History of Art in England (10): Oh Henry, what have you done?

unknown artist; King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII (1491-1547; reigned from 1509)

by an unknown artist [c.1520; National Portrait Gallery, London; c/o artuk.org]

“The life of English painting, which had grown feeble just before the Reformation, was all but extinguished in the period that followed” Rothenstein tells us in An Introduction to English Painting (p.18). “The break with Rome in 1534 led finally to an alliance between the Government and the forces of Puritan iconoclasm” and there was an attack upon religious art “which developed, in the end, to an attack upon all art.”

“Through the decades from 1530-1570, the Tudor government set out to destroy a whole way of life… the great shrines of medieval England… the monasteries and the monks… every sculpted and painted image from every parish church… the Latin mass, processions, the cult of saints, purgatory and the cycle of saints’ days which since time immemorial had framed the year for everyone… the ladder from earth to heaven by way of physical artefacts and symbolic acts… [all] had been swept away… having in the long term a profound impact upon the structure of people’s minds and imaginations.” (Roy Strong The Spirit of Britain pp.140-1).

With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, paintings and wall-paintings in churches especially, were obliterated or scratched out and defaced. Centuries of common visual culture was not only removed but denounced right across the country. There were public bonfires of ecclesiastical images and artefacts. Rebellions against such destruction – for example the Pilgrimage of Grace – met with extraordinary suppression. The effect of all this upon non-puritanical men and women – their imaginations, sense of self, sense of community, ways of seeing the world – must have been shattering. Suddenly they were violently adrift in a sea of whitewash.

And what happened to the paynters and their workshops?

Rothenstein describes a nationwide cultural collapse of expertise, knowledge and desire.


Within Henry’s court however, two aspects of visual culture were developed:

1. A decorative, theatrical staging of events to uphold and increase royal magnificence and splendour.

Roy Strong terms this “court art”, royal propaganda, as Henry cut the nation from the networks of Christendom and secured political power at home.
Henry himself was far from ignorant when it came to art (and its power) and Strong notes that one influence upon him may have been Anne Boleyn’s strong visual sensibility. Palaces shone with gold; interiors were meant to dazzle beholders. And outside, in great gardens, wooden boards that held raised flower beds were painted in the Tudor colours of white and green, amidst a forest of heraldry – painted emblems of lions, griffins and dragons – held up on posts.

2. A renewed desire for portraiture.
In the 1520s, Henry recruited the Flemish Hornebolte (or Horenbout) family – Gerard, Lucas and Susanna – to work for him. In the Netherlands, Gerard was a highly-regarded illuminator of manuscripts. In England, Lucas would become King’s Painter working on miniature portraits, painted from life.

Portrait miniatures of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (1525-26, by Lucas Horenbout)

But, as Rothenstein notes, the artist we most associate with Henry VIII is Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)who first came to England in 1526 for two years under the patronage of Thomas More for whom he painted a series of portraits, including the first family group portrait, the original of which is now lost, but Holbein’s preparatory drawing remains.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) [Chiswick House; c/o artuk.org]; Study for a portrait of Thomas More’s family, [c. 1527; Kunstmuseum Basel]

It’s interesting to note Roy Strong’s comment here (The Spirit of Britain, p.164):
“The notion of a picture being a work of art did not exist in Tudor England but admiration for verisimilitude most definitely did.”

Rambling 10 - 13

If you click on the ‘description’ and ‘in depth’ for the National Gallery’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, they have a brilliant description of that ‘verisimilitude’ from the contours of the profiled face, to the textures of silk and fur. I’m particularly intrigued too by the colours – they are certainly rich, especially that gorgeous green-blue background, but surely altogether quite dull in comparison with say the illuminated manuscript images. To be investigated further, but I do wonder what people at the time might have thought of Holbein’s work.

Holbein returned to England in 1532.

We’re in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” territory at this point in time: Catherine of Aragon dismissed, Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the resignation of Thomas More… The artist found favour instead within the radical new power circles of the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell who had become the king’s secretary in 1534, controlling all aspects of government, including artistic propaganda [Wikipedia]. The television series of Wolf Hall is still on BBC i-player, and the website has numerous discussions of the locations and characters involved then and now.

Holbein became King’s Painter in 1536 which included his involvement in the stage sets and pageantry side of court art as well as portrait painting – for which he had a studio and assistants, although this seems to be much debated.
And of course, priorities were changing again:

Rambling 10 - 5
Portrait of Jane Seymour (1509? -1537) , circa 1536-37, Hans Holbein the Younger Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

These are grand portraits of the key figures in Henry’s court, those who are meant to be seen and recognised. The Royal Collection Trust also has Holbein’s sketchbook, his life-drawings of court personalities, many now of ‘unknown’ name:

But I guess there’s one image from Holbein’s time at Henry’s court that stands out:

Rambling 10 - 3

King Henry VIII (his father Henry VII in the background) in
ink and watercolour by Holbein from about 1536-1537, currently at the National Gallery.

This image is part of a preparatory drawing for a wall-painting commissioned by Henry VIII from Holbein. The wall-painting in Whitehall Palace was completed in 1537, but subsequently destroyed by fire. However…

Rambling 10 - 4
The Whitehall Mural by George Vertue (1684-1756) [1737; Royal Collection Trust]
Holbein’s most important project for Henry VIII was the mural he painted at Whitehall Palace in 1537 to demonstrate the Tudor lineage. This showed the King and Jane Seymour, with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Henry’s confident pose became the most recognised image of the King.


The portrait genre seems to have been particularly favoured above all else by Henry and his courtiers. As Roy Strong notes, Holbein was not primarily a portrait painter before coming to England. Yet although Holbein became the most renowned of Painters, he did not ‘found’ a school as such.

One British artist however who may have worked alongside Holbein is John Bettes

A Man in a Black Cap 1545 by John Bettes active 1531-1570

A Man in a Black Cap by John Bettes [1545; Tate]

Before we leave Henry, though, we should note that the art of illumination did not disappear during his reign: The Psalter of Henry VIII is a 16th-century illuminated psalter that belonged to Henry VIII of England, now in the British Library. The king commissioned the book in the early 1540s from the French illuminator Jean Mallard, and what is especially interesting is that the psalter contains eight miniatures, amongst them scenes of the king himself, reading in his bedroom:

Rambling 10 - 7 Rambling 10 - 17

and of him playing the harp with his jester Will Somers in attendance.

It seems to me that jesters are especially appropriate for today, May 1st 2020 (despite lockdown).

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a maypole, around which dancers often circle with ribbons. Historically, Morris dancing has been linked to May Day celebrations. The earliest records of maypole celebrations date to the 14th century, and by the 15th century the maypole tradition was well established in southern Britain.

Not that Henry would have been dancing around the maypole in 1536, for it was at the May Day jousting tournament that he up and left, having just been informed of Anne Boleyn’s “infidelities”.

However, he may have turned to a more positive vision by way of his Book of Hours, in which the calendar page for May shows a young man and woman gathering in flowering branches.

Happy May Day one and all!

Rambling 10 - 9
The Hours of Henry VIII, illuminated by Jean Poyet, France, Tours [c.1500; Morgan Library, New York]

Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (10)

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About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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