Thursday, 6 October 2011

Portraits 2/6: Holbein and Thomas Wyatt

Hans Holbein sketches one of the most notoriously handsome men of the Tudor court, the Brad Pitt of his day, physically strong and more than six foot tall – Thomas Wyatt.

Wyatt’s father was a war hero who’d sided against Richard III in the Wars of the Roses, and had faced torture in the Tower of London. When Henry VII won the Battle of Bosworth field, though, it was all change for the Wyatts. The freed Sir Henry was suddenly an honoured man, permanently in favour at the newly crowned house of Tudor.

This portrait dates from a turning point in British art, the moment when facial likenesses change from generic mask-like sameness to believable humanity. It began precisely as the medieval period concluded – the moment Henry VII saw off Richard III at Bosworth, bringing to a close the Wars of the Roses. I’ve always liked the idea that the medieval period in England had such a defined end – a literal date, 22nd August 1485.

Compare the portrait of Richard III (left) with that of Henry VII (right), and you can see that there has been a tangible change from medieval stiffness to a more photographic verisimilitude. The Tudor court employed artists from Europe who had learned the skills of the newly flowered Renaissance. The Tudors, whose claim to the throne of England was tenuous at best, (they connected to the royal line via illegitimate female descent) may have understood the need for impressive regal images of themselves and their loyal subjects, to sprinkle an urgent air of imperiousness upon the shaky foundations of their dynasty.

Holbein, a German artist – and probably the greatest court painter England ever had – was a true gift to the Tudors, for he managed to create beauty that transcended generations. His life-like portraits enable us to see, empathize with and really imagine the human beings at the centre of the whirling cyclone of tortures and executions that characterized Henry VIII’s reign. In drawings like the portrait of Wyatt, we see Holbein’s work at its simplest and best. No lavish decorative conceits or symbolic settings here – just a human face sketched with complete confidence yet striking economy. A connection to the likeness of a man long dead, together with a suggestion of his inner life. Wyatt doesn’t meet our gaze yet nor does he really look elsewhere – he seems to be thinking. We can only wonder what’s on his mind.

Whenever I look at Tudor portraits in the National Portrait Gallery I can hardly bear to read the accompanying captions. Most of them seem to have fallen from favour at some time or another, being tortured and/or executed. If they didn’t offend Henry VIII then most would go on to offend his daughter, Bloody Mary. You couldn’t really win. Some of Holbein’s greatest portraits were literally snapshots from the core of this insanity, often not merely depicting the dramatis personae of the times but directly influencing events.

The most famous example is Holbein’s portrait of Ann of Cleves, which the artist was dispatched to paint when Henry was seeking wife number four. Holbein was presumably in a bit of a pickle with this one – she was, after all, a member of European royalty. Should he flatter her, make her look beautiful? We can only judge his portrait by the events which unfolded; Henry loved the painting and agreed to a marriage, but when he finally met Anne he famously denounced her as a ‘mare’.

Henry’s Lord Chamberlain Thomas Cromwell, subject of another striking portrait by Holbein, was executed for his role in this sorry affair. Anne escaped with an annulment and Holbein, too, lived to fight another day.

Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Wyatt also depicts a man who had a front row seat on events which shaped England. The dashing man’s reputation lives on even to this day in English literature, for he was a gifted poet whose poems remain highly regarded, even pioneering – he popularized the sonnet.

Wyatt here is the young handsome man at court but potential disaster was only just around the corner, for he had enjoyed a flirtatious dalliance with Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn. This was not an adulterous liaison. At the time Anne was an unmarried young lady-in-waiting, with as yet no reason to believe she would be marrying the King of England. It also remains completely unknown whether the romance had even progressed as far as a kiss. What’s more, Wyatt had sensibly confessed his former infatuation to the King.

Wyatt’s life was placed in danger, however, when Henry began to tire of Anne. His ministers searched furiously for excuses to chop her head off – any scrap of evidence would do. The merest whisperings were enough for this purge - a young musician at court, Mark Smeaton, was arrested after being overheard talking to the Queen. He confessed under torture to being her lover, and faced the axe. Anne was charged with incest, her brother was executed and it was furthermore suggested that she had practiced witchcraft to ensnare the King. The moles on her body were described as ‘devil’s teats’.

Poor Thomas must have been horrified to find himself arrested for treason and placed in the Tower of London. From his prison cell, it is believed that he could actually see Tower Green, and was therefore able to witness Anne Boleyn’s head being chopped off with a sword. He can have been in little doubt that his own execution would soon follow.

Luckily for Sir Thomas, then, this saga had an unusually happy ending – he was a rare survivor of the Boleyn accused. It’s believed his father’s influence at court secured his release and he lived on to the ripe old age of... er... 39.


  1. ...Surprised Holbein didn't get the axe (hurrrr) from Henry VIII for misleading him with that portrait! Very interesting article.

  2. I think Holbein was extremely lucky too!... As far as I know that was his last high profile job though...
    Glad you liked the piece!