Hans Holbein’s portraits of two of the most prominent figures from Henry VIII’s court currently glower across a fireplace at each other in the Frick Collection in New York. Holbein painted Thomas Cromwell on the cusp of power, six years after he had painted the portrait of his first English patron, Thomas More. Each intended for a different patron, the unforeseeable twists of provenance have resulted in their current location in the same collection, almost half a millennium later. Both More and Cromwell were to die at the order of the king and to achieve international fame, and notoriety, for their roles in the English Reformation.
Today, theirs are perhaps two of the most well-known faces from the sixteenth century. However, even before their depiction in film, television and in print, More and Cromwell’s faces would have been familiar to many, for by the late sixteenth century Holbein’s paintings had become the source images for an ever-expanding production line of painted portraits. These later copies were made using drawings, patterns and paintings derived from Holbein’s works, and appear to have been produced in part to satisfy the demands of patrons and collectors who wished to explain the narrative of history on their walls.
The power of their pairing proved impossible to resist when planning the layout for a small display examining the production of copies of Holbein’s paintings, and as a result the best versions of the Gallery’s portraits of More and Cromwell can currently be found eyeballing each other in the confines of Room 3, watched over by the slightly more benign expression of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Image credits (from left to right)
Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1527), NPG 4358
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1532-1533), NPG 1727
As part of the display - Hans Holbein Re-made: Copies and versions of portraits from the Tudor court