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Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

Cicely Heron (b.1507) c.1526-7

Black and coloured chalks | 37.8 x 28.1 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912269

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A portrait drawing of Cicely Heron (b.1507), daughter of Sir Thomas More, bust-length to front, facing three-quarters right. She wears a headdress, a dress with a square d├ęcolletage, and a pendant. The sitter's bodice has been loosened to reveal her yellow kirtle beneath, showing her to be pregnant.

The drawing is a preparatory study for a group portrait of the family of Sir Thomas More, the major work of Holbein's first period in England, probably destroyed in a fire at Kremsier Castle (Czech Republic) in 1752 but known through a drawing of the whole composition that Holbein sent to Erasmus and through copies by Rowland Lockey from the end of the sixteenth century.

Cicely was More's third and youngest daughter; she married Giles Heron in 1525. In the painting she sits on a low stool at the feet of her father, though Holbein took some time to decide upon her precise pose. In the composition drawing she rests her left hand on her swollen belly, and holds a rosary and prayer book in her right; here her hands appear to be held together; in the painting (to judge from the copies) she held a larger book and discoursed either with her sister Margaret Roper, seated alongside, or with her stepmother at far right. All More's children, female as well as male, were educated in Latin and Greek, philosophy, theology, logic and mathematics - Erasmus described the More household as Plato's academy in Christian shape.

The similarity of Cicely's pose to that in Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with an ermine (c.1490; Krakow, Czartoryski Muzeum), particularly noticeable in the compositional sketch, has often been remarked upon. Holbein undoubtedly knew some of Leonardo's work, knowledge that he could have gained during a putative visit to Italy c.1517-19, during a visit to France in 1524, or through the artist Quentin Massys (1465/6-1530): Holbein apparently visited Massys in Antwerp on his way to England in 1526, and the Flemish artist knew and adapted several of Leonardo's head studies. But the whereabouts of Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani at this time is not certain, and the identity of the ladies' forenames, and the fact that they were both pregnant when portrayed, are probably coincidences rather than a deliberate reference by Holbein.

Text adapted from Holbein to Hockney: Drawings from the Royal Collection