Exhibition reunites Henry VIII's courtiers

Monday, 29 October 2012

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, opening 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).  Guildford 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.

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.  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 careful to ally himself with rising stars and to desert them as they fell.  Holbein  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. 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.

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