King Henry VII
6 of 17 portraits on display in Room 1 at the National Portrait Gallery
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
King Henry VII
by Unknown Flemish artist
oil on panel, 1505
16 3/4 in. x 12 in. (425 mm x 305 mm) arched top
Click on the links below to find out more:
New attribution: Unknown Flemish artist
Key findings: Original dating confirmed. The panel and frame are integral. The nails in the side of the panel (evident in x-ray) may relate to the fixings for an original cover as recorded in documentary evidence. There is extensive underdrawing probably deriving from both a pattern and freehand drawing.
Purchased in 1876. This portrait is the most important surviving image of Henry VII and has been considered a 'prime document in the iconography of Tudor royalty' (Strong, 1969, p. 150). The inscription records that the picture was commissioned in 1505 as part of negotiations for the marriage of Henry VII and Margaret, Duchess of Savoy. The marriage did not take place but the painting appears to have been sent to the duchess and retained in her collection at Malines as it was recorded there in 1524 and 1530 with a red painted cover: 'une couverture paincte de vermeil' (Strong, 1969, p.150). Purchased for the Gallery from E. G. Muller of London. Previously owned by Emile Barré of Paris who bought it from Julian of Le Mans. Nothing is known of its previous history after 1530.
The panel and integral carved frame are one single piece of wood, however, old nails evident from the x-ray indicate that the image was once adjoined to another structure or framing device, perhaps to support a cover. The changes to the composition in the adjustment of the fingers and the less easily decipherable light coloured areas of paint below both of the existing sleeves (evident in the x-ray) would seem to indicate that this painting was an original composition. However, the handling across the whole surface of the picture is not consistent. Some areas, such as the eyes, appear to be less competently painted than parts of the costume, although this may be the result of the poor condition in this area. It is possible that the portrait type may have been established from life at this date and then several versions produced, of which this is one.
Notes on likely authorship
The painting style indicates the picture is by a Flemish artist. It is possible the artist was either resident in England at this period or a Flemish journeyman, and was commissioned by Herman Rinck, the agent of Emperor Maximillian I (as stated in the inscription), to undertake the portrait. A previous attribution to Master Michiel Sittow was rejected in the 1990s and is not supported by this analysis.
Commentary on painting style, technique
The picture is thinly painted in fine brushstrokes especially fine in the hair and much of the picture is made up of careful layers of opaque pigment layered in places with glazes. The handling of this work indicates several inconsistencies in the painting style. In particular, the chain and pendant of the Golden Fleece, passages in the hair and parts of the costume are painted with subtlety and considerable skill, while the eyes and face lack the same level of definition and finesse of description. This may indicate the presence of more than one hand at work. The artist makes considerable use of blue pigment (azurite) across the picture, including the background, in the shadows of the facial features and chin. The particles of azurite are large and good quality, and although this pigment was not as expensive as ultramarine, it was still a costly pigment.
Justification for dating
All materials used date from the period. The inscription cites the circumstances of this commission in the year 1505. Although the inscription is slightly damaged, the date of this picture is not at question. Dendrochronology has indicated that the last tree ring on the panel is 1480 with a possible felling date of 1488. This indicates a seventeen-year period before the panel was put to use.
Drawing and transfer technique
Extensive underdrawing has been identified with infrared reflectography (see IRR mosaic 01). The lines around the chin and eyes show stronger, more definite marks, which appear traced, and were strengthened during the final stages of the drawing process. Additional freehand lines in the fingers and hair show that the artist augmented the drawn pattern. To what extent these findings indicate a sitting from the life is difficult to assess, although it is highly likely that the circumstances of the commission would have demanded a sitting from the life. The use of a pattern could indicate that the original drawing may have been put to use for other, now lost, portraits of Henry VII.
Relevance to other known versions
Numerous other broadly similar later 'versions' exist which are loosely based on this image in facial type and pose:
- Christchurch Oxford
- Royal Collection
- Society of Antiquaries
- Various private collections.
Cooper, Tarnya, A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2008, p.27
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp.149-152
Tudor-Craig, Pamela, Richard III, National Portrait Gallery, 1973, pp.92-3
Compare Images (what's this?)
Compare high-resolution images against the painting - mainly x-ray and infra-red photography images, but sometimes UV or raking light images - side by side with the ability to zoom in on details.
The painting has widespread craquelure across the paint surface, and some areas are slightly raised. There is a considerable amount of retouching over old losses and much wear in the background. There are very fine flecks of gold - associated with the re-gilding of the frame - embedded in the varnish throughout, indicating that the frame was re-gilded after the paint surface was restored. The restoration over wear and craquelure is broad and imprecise (see Ultra violet, micro 02, micro 12, micro 13 and micro 15).
A pencil has been used to draw craquelure in the face and the grey ledge below the fingers (see micro 12). Restoration in the background has the appearance of cerulean blue (see micro 15).
Number of boards: 1
Panel Orientation: Vertical
Panel condition observations
The vertical crack down from top centre (approximately 20 cm long) - possibly caused by a hole for hanging - has been repaired with two wood inserts. The panel is in a stable condition. The vertical crack visible on the front can also be seen on the verso. The verso is prepared with a chalk ground and red paint (see Paint sampling and Frame). At the lower edge of the verso a thin slice of wood (with paint attached) has been removed (probably as part of 1975 dendrochronology examination).
An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.
Number of boards: 1
Last date of tree ring: 1480
No sapwood was present on the single board and a terminus post quem date can therefore be applied. The last heartwood ring was dated to 1480 and adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings indicated that the tree used for this board was felled after 1488. The board was approximately 305 mm wide. This is comparable to, or slightly larger than, the majority of full width boards seen in panel paintings and suggests that there is a low possibility that it has been significantly trimmed.
A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.
Notes on previous x-ray, taken in 1966
Some changes to the hand on the right side and to the position of the little finger - visible in pre-retouching colour Ektachrome (1972).
New x-ray: panel condition and additions
The vertical wood grain is clearly visible in the x-ray and can be seen to run directly through the integral frame.
In the x-ray, a number of nails can be seen embedded in the wood around the outer edges of the frame (see x-ray mosaic 01). The frame underwent complete restoration in 1972 and because of this it is difficult to determine the level at which the nails were inserted, i.e. whether they are above or below the original ground layer. Although the purpose of these nails is not clear, historical documentation suggests that the painting originally had a red painted cover: there is a record in an inventory for the palace of Margaret of Austria in Malines (1516) of "Une autre tableau du chief du pere de celluy qui a presente portant la Thoison d'Or, et ayant une couverture paincte de vermeil" (Strong, 1969, p.151). It is possible that the nails seen in x-ray are related to this cover, and were used to secure it in place, or that they relate to a type of support or additional framing device.
Isolated residues of possible original chalk ground and/or gilding are visible on the frame beneath the non-original surface gold. A modern screw can be seen to be in the upper right-hand outer edge of the frame.
New x-ray: possible changes to the composition
In the x-ray, there are two dense areas (as dense as the adjacent lead white fur collar) visible in the lower part of the upper arms(see x-ray mosaic 01). It is not clear how these areas relate to the composition, although it is possible that the drapery initially had wide cuffs (perhaps white fur-lined), which were then painted out in favour of a simplified composition (see Paint sampling, sample 2, and Surface examination).
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
There is some detailed underdrawing in the face, hair and hands and also very free underdrawing in the hands and hair (see IRR mosaic 01). Part of the underdrawing in the face seems to relate to a pattern which is then strengthened with freehand additions. The number of lines in the drawing of the hands indicate uncertainty and a search for development of the composition. A horizontal line is visible directly above the painted ledge on which the inscription is written. There is a possible drawn outline for a cuff marked out on the arm (right side). Dark paint can be seen with infrared reflectography on the outline of the sleeves: there are changes in the paint layers in these areas that do not appear on the paint surface (see Paint sampling and Surface examination).
Possible changes to composition
The position of the knuckles of the hand on the right side appears to be higher in the painting. The edges of the fur collar have been changed slightly during drawing.
Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.
The paint has been applied in a single layer, except where it runs over a pentiment or where glazing has been applied over an opaque layer, such as in the red decoration in the coat and in other decoration details. For example, multiple layers in an area of pentimenti can be seen in sample 2 (taken from the cuff).
The lowest visible layer in three of the samples consisted of lead white, with occasional traces of an orange substance - probably red lead. A chalk ground could be seen in one sample (sample 13) and it is possible that a priming layer was applied across the whole painting. However, sample 13 from the cloak has little evidence of a lead white priming layer over the ground: only a few traces of lead white can be seen in the sample, and it does not form a distinctive layer.
The coat - shoulder and cuffs
The paint of the costume at the shoulder on the right (sample 1) has probably the most complicated structure of the samples taken. At the bottom of the sample, no chalk ground could be seen, but there is a trace of lead white, containing a little red, in the lowest layer visible, which may be part of a pentiment or priming layer. Over this is thick black paint, probably from the pentiment visible with infrared reflectography. The red pattern of the yellow coat was painted with two different red paints: red lake over vermilion. The yellow coat was made from a mixture of yellow ochre, with occasional additions of red ochre. (See X-Ray for discussion of pentimenti in sleeves.)
Sample 2, taken from the edge of the cuff, showed that this area also has a complex structure. The lowest layer visible in this sample is largely lead white, but it contains occasional particles of azurite and crimson lake, which would give it a pale violet hue. This paint does not follow the form of the upper paint layers, but appears to be underneath the surface image. This indicates that this area has undergone some level of change, perhaps from having wide (violet) cuffs to the drapery seen in the final image (see X-Ray and Surface examination).
The blue paint of the background appears to be a single layer of azurite and lead white, brushed on in a relatively thick application.
The blue background was painted with azurite, mixed with lead white. The same pigment has also been used in the jewels of the chain, where it forms an intense blue. Good quality azurite can be found in various parts of the painting, such as in the fur and chain, where the particles are large and have a powerful hue. There is no ultramarine. The grey pearls may involve another blue (possibly smalt) as the paint here includes glass-like particles. The greyish paint has a very coarse appearance under the microscope.
The red decoration on the outer coat is made with an opaque base of dry process vermilion and is glazed with a red lake. Lead soaps can be seen to have formed in areas of vermilion, but may be from the underlying lead-based layer rather than forming within the vermilion layer. Curiously the lead soap formation does seem to be most marked in areas where the vermilion has been glazed with red lake. The strong orangeish scarlet just to the lower right of the rose was thought to be red lead, but analysis has shown it to be vermilion laid over a lighter underlayer.
The bright yellow on all highlights of the Order of the Golden Fleece collar and coat pattern is lead-tin yellow. This was the most brilliant yellow available at the time with which to imitate gold. The yellow gown was painted using good quality yellow ochre, which is occasionally mixed with red to give it a warm hue to contrast with the metallic yellow of the Order of the Golden Fleece collar, and the coat pattern.
The green is a translucent pigment of low refractive index, and is isotropic. It is probably verdigris.
Other pigments include brown, yellow and red earth pigments, lead white and carbon black (the particles of which have a slightly brownish and rounded appearance, possibly indicating that it is fruit stone black).
An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.
Painting style and method
The paint was applied in a smooth manner, particularly in the flesh. There are very fine brushstrokes in the hair and fur in particular (see micro 04, micro 09 and micro 17). The thickest paint is in the drapery, the white fur and the background. The quality of painting in the eyes is not as high as might be expected, but this is largely due to the extent of abrasion and restoration in the flesh and eyes. By comparison, the handling of the jewellery is much finer (see micro 07). In the area immediately to the right of the chain on the left side, the inner edge of the white fur remains unpainted: fine brushstrokes have been applied, but not with white paint as in the rest of the fur (see micro 11). The edge of the fur collar appears to have a line along the edge, incised into the ground. The white paint of the fur fills the indentation (see micro 08).
Order of construction
- White chalk ground
- Very thin lead white priming layer (appears in only some of the paint sample cross-sections - see Paint sampling) / Underdrawing (see micro 01 and Infrared reflectography. It was not possible to determine whether the underdrawing lies above or below the priming layer).
- Dark underlayer for the 'gold' costume, followed by the yellow paint containing good quality yellow ochre. (In some areas beneath the dark underlayer there is a layer containing lead white mixed with some azurite and red lake, giving a pale violet hue, possibly for different cuffs (see Paint sampling and X-ray).
- Reserve left for chain and golden fleece.
- Flesh paint.
- Background, painted with azurite and lead white mixture (see micro 15).
- Details on hair (see micro 17).
- Pattern on gold costume: red lake drawing, opaque lighter red highlights, red lake glazes, lead-tin yellow highlights (see micro 10).
- Dark red glaze on under-robe, chain and golden fleece. Note on order of application in the dark red tunic: brown layer, red glaze, black strip down the centre of the tunic applied over red lake (see micro 18).
- Fur - brown and white and maybe fine hair details (see micro 09).
- Rose (see micro 05).
Lead white, carbon black, vermilion, azurite - very large azurite particles were noted throughout the paint surface (see micro 03), smalt (possibly), red lake, lead-tin yellow, verdigris, earth pigments, yellow ochre and red ochre
Lead soap protrusions are visible in paint surface, particularly in the red drapery (see micro 10). The lead soaps are possibly from the lead white priming layer, or perhaps from the red lead of the costume, but have protruded through to the paint surface much more in areas where there is red lake.
Changes to composition/pentimenti
The position of the knuckles of the hand on the right side was raised at the painting stage (see Infrared reflectography). Changes to the areas of the cuffs, and the sleeve outlines, were indicated by Infrared reflectography and X-ray.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
There is extensive retouching, particularly in background, face and hand on the right side. The centre of the inscription is heavily worn (see UV photograph). Examination in ultra violet light shows residues of an old natural resin varnish beneath the upper varnish layer. These residues are slightly opaque and patchy in normal light, particularly in the dark areas.
The gold arched frame is the original framing device and the wooden panel and frame are carved from a single piece of wood. The gilding seems to date from the Hargrave treatment (1972). The gilded surface has a widespread mechanical craquelure to simulate age appearance.
Hargrave's initial assessment of condition states that the chalk ground of the frame has been entirely replaced. There are traces of black and scarlet in the wood grain. Nails are embedded within the outer moulding (see X-ray).
Paint samples from the frame gave little information about its history. Samples from the flat friezes of the frame showed only a thick layer of white chalk ground with a little bole beneath the gold, all applied relatively recently. No traces of an older layer could be seen in the two samples from these areas.
Reverse of frame
A substantial layer of red paint (identified as vermilion) had been applied over a thick white chalk ground on the reverse, showing that a good deal of care has been taken to keep the panel in good condition. The paint gives no evidence of the date at which the coating was applied.
See this portrait
On display in Room 1 at the National Portrait Gallery