Holbein in Wolf Hall

source: farfarawaysite.com
source: farfarawaysite.com

We earlier discussed here the authenticity of the costumes in Wolf Hall as well as how much the series costume designer Joanna Eatwell values Hans Holbein the Younger’s work in achieving this authenticity.

It turns out that Eatwell digged into the paintings of Holbein for research. From Lucy Worsley’s interview with Eatwell:

‘He’s a genius – all the information is in his paintings,’ she says.

‘He not only painted members of the court, he also painted merchants and even some of Henry’s courtiers and staff, so we have a complete cross-section which is incredibly important for a piece like this.’

Eatwell argues, in an audio interview with the BBC Academy, Holbein is a “master in his craft” and his paintings are realistic but also propaganda. The paintings make a statement about the person in the painting — she calls it the “photoshop” of the times.

source: BBC
source: BBC

We have finally met Hans Holbein the Younger in Wolf Hall Episode 4 “The Devil’s Spit” as he was painting Thomas Cromwell.

Hans Holbein the younger, according to Wikipedia “ travelled to England in 1526 in search of work, with a recommendation from Erasmus. He was welcomed into the humanist circle of Thomas More, where he quickly built a high reputation. After returning to Basel for four years, he resumed his career in England in 1532. This time he worked under the patronage of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. By 1535 — the year More was executed — he was King’s Painter to King Henry VIII. In this role, he produced not only portraits and festive decorations but designs for jewellery, plate, and other precious objects. His portraits of the royal family and nobles are a record of the court in the years when Henry was asserting his supremacy over the English Church.”

A Guardian article about Holbein’s work points out that “Holbein’s painting of Henry, with his father, mother (both long since dead) and third wife, Jane Seymour, done in 1537 on a wall of Whitehall Palace, was destroyed in 1698 in the fire that consumed the entire palace except for Inigo Jones’s 17th-century Banqueting House, and a few fragments lying under the Ministry of Defence or behind Downing Street’s security barriers.

And yet this is the most influential, and efficacious, royal portrait in British history. As soon as it was finished, it was copied, imitated, quoted – by Holbein himself, among others; an instant icon. And Henry VIII is remembered, still, as he has been for five centuries, as a huge, hearty man, chest broad as a wall, his legs arrogantly apart and his elbows flaunting his right to push everyone aside.”

Hmmm… Maybe like this? 🙂

source: farfarawaysite.com
source: farfarawaysite.com

Interesting enough, two of the most well-known Holbein works, the portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, are in the permanent collection at the Frick Collection in New York City. The two big rivals sort of look at each other from the opposite sides of the room 🙂

Here is Sir Thomas More on the left:


Here is Thomas Cromwell on the right:

source: thefrick.org
source: thefrick.org

And, we also have our Thomas posing for Holbein to paint him… What do you think about the authenticity?

source: BBC
source: BBC

In closing, let me give you a funny story (funny for us, not for Holbein) about how come Holbein fell from the King’s grace… thanks to a painting he made! Maybe that was the “photoshop” Joanna Eatwell talks about 🙂

From the Guardian

“Holbein posed the question of beauty versus ugliness most radically, honestly and dangerously – endangering himself, risking his neck – when Henry VIII gave him the most bizarre mission that ever fell to a court artist. It happened in 1538, following the death of Jane Seymour, after she gave birth to Edward, Prince of Wales, whom Holbein portrayed as a miraculous, divine infant in man’s clothing with his hand raised in podgy benediction.

source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Edward, Prince of Wales, source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The death of Henry’s third wife left the Bluebeard monarch on the prowl again. Henry wanted another bride, but eligible women were getting thin on the ground: his reputation preceded him. So Holbein was dispatched to portray likely candidates among the politically useful dynasties of Europe.

Holbein was sent to portray Anne of Cleves. His portrait convinced Henry – who had been unimpressed by other artists’ images of Anne – that she was the one.


But when the king sneaked a look at his bride on the eve of their marriage, he was bitterly disappointed and claimed he couldn’t get an erection for this “fat Flanders mare”. The marriage was dissolved on grounds of non-consummation; Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Lord Great Chamberlain, an earthy Holbein portrait subject, who had encouraged the marriage for strategic reasons, got his head chopped off; Holbein lost Henry’s favour and never received another royal commission on the scale of the Whitehall mural.”

This will, of course, be the crescendo of Mirror and the Light — the third book in the Wolf Hall trilogy that we just cannot wait for… But, seriously, can you imagine King’s fury against Holbein and Cromwell in the “Anne Cleves affair? It would most probably dominate Henry’s fury at Cromwell in Episode 5 Crows, too, huh?

source: BBC
source: BBC

Find more about Hans Holbein the Younger and his art on Artsy website.

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

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