Copying Holbein

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell from the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition has been developed by the National Trust and the National Portrait Gallery in partnership with the University of Bristol. It brings together nine sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century copies of Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of prominent individuals from the court of Henry VIII. All of the paintings have undergone technical analysis in order to learn more about the way in which they were made.

Hans Holbein the Younger was a German painter, printmaker and designer, who is famed for the compelling realism of his portraits. He was taught to paint by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, and worked in Basle, Switzerland before moving to London. Holbein worked in England from 1526 to 1528 and returned in either 1531 or 1532, remaining in the country until his death in 1543. Sir Thomas More was one of the artist’s earliest patrons in England and Holbein ultimately became court painter to Henry VIII.  Over eighty of his portrait drawings survive, along with miniatures and paintings, and it is these images that have allowed people to come face to face with prominent members of Henry VIII’s court for nearly five hundred years.

In the years following Holbein’s death, his portraits came to be prized and collected by both European art dealers and the English aristocracy due to the importance of the sitters and his own fame and reputation as a skilled artist. As a result there was a lively market for copies of the paintings. Artists faithfully imitated both the composition and colouration of the original works, producing portraits that were utterly unlike those being made of contemporary sitters. The copies appear to have been produced by artists who had access to the original paintings (or direct patterns from the original) as the proportions of the figures are often matched with considerable exactitude. However, the differences between the portraits show that, far from being the specialist production of a single workshop, the copies were produced by artists working in numerous different studios.    

All of the works in ‘Copying Holbein’ have undergone technical analysis, using techniques such as x-radiography and infrared reflectography to see beneath the surface paint layers and examine the preparatory drawing. As copies, the paintings are difficult to date stylistically, or on the basis of the sitter, and therefore dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) has been used to date the wooden panel supports. The exhibition includes portraits of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Sir Thomas More and Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, and also a portrait of Jane Seymour from the National Trust’s collection at Montacute.

More information on the research can be found on the Making Art in Tudor Britain pages on the National Portrait Gallery website.