Secrets of a Holbein portrait revealed

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Conservation of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger has uncovered details that had been lost to the world for 400 years.  Best known as ‘King’s Painter’ to Henry VIII, Holbein is arguably one of the greatest portraitists of all time.  The portrait of Hans of Antwerp, which was first recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of Charles I, is one of 27 works by the German artist to go on display at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace next month. 

Using X-ray technology, Royal Collection Trust conservators discovered that the painting suffered a major accident within the first 100 years of its life and had broken into three pieces.  It had been glued back together, and the damaged areas repainted, hiding many of the portrait's details – including clues to the identity of the sitter.

Dated July 1532, the portrait depicts a man dressed in an expensive fur-lined gown, resting his quill pen on a sheet of paper and cutting the string of a letter with a knife.  In 1874, a reading of the inscription on the letter led experts to believe the sitter was the goldsmith Hans of Antwerp, who worked for Henry VIII and was a close friend of Holbein.  In the 20th century doubts emerged, with details in the painting, including the sitter's costume, suggesting Hans of Antwerp was more likely to be a merchant.

After two years of work, Royal Collection Trust conservators have confirmed that the painting is one of only seven surviving Holbein portraits of German merchants who worked out of the London Steelyard. 

Their investigations found that the end of the sitter’s seal had been altered in its early history to appear as a ‘W’.  In fact, Holbein had painted a circle and crossed lines – a merchant’s mark.  The inscription on the letter, partially obscured by the knife, remains hard to decipher.  If this merchant was indeed called ‘Hans of Antwerp’, he could have been a German merchant who had strong trading links with the city of Antwerp in the Netherlands. 

The painstaking removal of overpaint and discoloured varnish have revealed the portrait’s original, vibrant colours.  This process also uncovered the final touches that Holbein added to the work, such as the sitter’s eyelashes and single strands of hair.  Conservator Claire Chorley said, ‘It was incredibly exciting to rediscover details that had been lost within the painting for so long.  We even uncovered a metal key lying on the desk that had previously been completely invisible.’

Exhibition curator Lucy Whitaker said, ‘It is wonderful to be able to confirm finally that the man is in fact a German merchant, perhaps sharing a name with the well-known goldsmith.  Conservation of the painting has brought us tantalisingly close to solving the mystery of the sitter’s identity.’

Find out more about the conservation of ‘Hans of Antwerp’