King Henry VIII
2 of 90 portraits of King Henry VIII
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
King Henry VIII
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
oil on panel, circa 1520
20 in. x 15 in. (508 mm x 381 mm)
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Key findings: Dating confirmed. Extensive underdrawing is evident but at some point during painting the shape of Henry's face was altered.
This portrait was purchased in 1969 from the Sabin Gallery, London. It is a version of a pre-Holbein portrait type of Henry VIII. Although the Holbein image still dominates as the most widespread likeness of Henry VIII there were several other portrait types produced during his lifetime by other artists or workshops.
Henry is posed in the process of removing a gold ring from the little finger of his right hand. The picture appears to be rather formulaic and was perhaps one of a number produced at this date to meet a growing demand at court and among wealthy subjects. However, while an assessment of the composition and the characterisation of the face would indicate that the picture might have derived from an established pattern of Henry, the underdrawing reveals a slightly different narrative. The original design for the face was very different from the finished painted surface and indicates a search for a composition and changes of direction (see below). The facial features of the underdrawing are thinner and appear far more like the existing likenesses of Henry VII and Arthur. The composition was perhaps designed to accompany a portrait of Catherine of Aragon.
Notes on likely authorship
It is not possible to identify the authorship of this portrait. Strong suggests this type of portrait of Henry VIII (described as type I) was produced by a workshop that was under French influence (Strong, 1969, p. 158), and the compositional format bears comparison to Burgundian portraiture.
Commentary on condition, painting style and technique
The panel shows signs of being originally constructed with an engaged frame, but this is now lost. The surface is rather abraded in the face and neck and there is some restoration over small damages and the varnish is dull and quite discoloured. At some point in the past the panel split in two and was mended. There is a network of craquelure, and cracks along the grain.
The technique and overall effect achieved in the portrait is quite decorative: for example, gilding and glazes of red lake and azurite are used extensively throughout. A thin priming layer with a purple tint has been applied over the white chalk ground. This makes the portrait, particularly the flesh tones, appear quite cool and the flesh paint appear quite dark in some places.
The slashed dark tunic would have originally appeared a purple colour (made of red lake with azurite glazed over it) but because the azurite glaze has discoloured the tunic now appears very dark and much browner. The gilding for the jewelled band was applied first and extends beyond the current line of the shoulder on both sides. Due to overpaint and restoration it is difficult to determine exactly the original shoulder line. The fur is painted in rather a crude way in comparison to other works of this period in the collection. Significant areas of the fur have been overpainted, particularly in the left-hand side of the panel.
Justification for dating
The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period. Analysis of the wooden panel by dendrochronology revealed that the wood derives from a tree which was felled after 1507. A date of c. 1520s appears highly probable.
Drawing and transfer technique
Extensive underdrawing is notable in the portrait and it can be seen through the flesh paint, which is thin in some areas such as parts of the neck, face and hands (see detail 06). Further underdrawing is evident using infrared reflectography, and can be seen in the nose, eyes, hands and costume. However, these lines do not closely correspond to the painted features in the face.
The drawing is almost certainly a tracing. The lines were traced and then changed freehand. The eyes and nose were refined and moved lower and were made slightly smaller during the painting stage. However, at some point during painting the shape of Henrys face was altered: the line of his chin was extended when his beard was painted in. The original line of the chin can be seen in the x-ray and in infrared light.
X-ray and infrared reflectography also show where the gilding for the jewelled bank extends beyond the current line of the shoulder on both sides and where it has been painted over. There are also small changes to the neckline and some costume details.
Relevance to other known versions
Related portraits include:
- collection of the Duke of Atholl (also known in the past as Prince Arthur)
- Anglesey Abbey: Henry VIII (facing to right)
- Sothebys in November 2001 as Portrait of Henry VIII, English School c.1520 and previously in the collection of the Duke of Sutherland. Location now unknown
- exhibited at the Weiss Gallery 11th Oct 24th Nov 1995 as Henry VIII, English School c. 1525-30, from a private collection, (location unknown)
- collection of Capt. Dudley Cutbill (location unknown)
The portrait also bears comparison to the Arthur, Prince of Wales in the Royal Collection (RCIN 403444), and there are similarities in costume and background features with a portrait of Francis I owned by the Society of Antiquaries (Museum No. 325).
Ayris, Paul, and Peter Newman Brooks, Cranmer: Primate of all England, A Quincentenary Exhibition, The British Library, 1989-1990 (no. 85)
Constable, William, Illustrated Catalogue of British Primitive Painting, Royal Academy, 1924, pp. 44-45
Conway, Martin, A Portrait of Henry VIII, Burlington Magazine, vol. 45, no. 256, July 1924, pp. 20, 42
Hake, Henry, Two Lectures on the Portraits of Henry VIII and his Family, Royal Institutes, November 1939
Trapp, Joseph and Hubertus Schulte Herbruggen, Sir Thomas More, National Portrait Gallery, 1977-1978, p. 22 (no. 6)
Woodward, G.W., King Henry VIII, 1967, pp. 5, 10, 24
Connoisseur Magazine, March 1949, pp. 52-53
Dendrochronology, National Portrait Gallery, 1977 (no. 6)
Illustrated London News, 9th December 1933, p. 928
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.
At some point in the past the panel split in two and was mended. This join is stable, but slightly open at the very top, and visible from the front. There is a general network of craquelure, and cracks along the grain. Some of the paint is slightly cupped, particularly in the lower-left corner, and although this area seems stable, there is some blistering in the right-hand half of the painting. There are no new/recent losses, but the paint is abraded in the face and neck. There is some restoration over small damages. The varnish is dull and quite discoloured and is somewhat matte and waxy-looking. Residues of old discoloured varnish are visible in the white tunic.
There is a lot of retouching over small losses, abrasion, and down the mended split. The many spots of restoration in the flesh paint (especially the face and neck) seem to contribute to the darkish appearance of some areas. The ends of the jewelled band, where the gilding was laid in too far, have been overpainted.
Number of boards: 1
Panel Orientation: Vertical
Panel condition observations
The panel has split apart at the left side and has been rejoined (probably in the nineteenth century) (see Condition). The two edges of the join are not entirely flush and there is a slight gap between the two pieces. The top of the split was repaired more recently. The panel has a very slight warp. There are four rectangular wood buttons across the back of the join. Three other wood buttons are missing. There are several old newspaper cuttings and handwritten notes stuck on the back.
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: 1499
The panel is constructed from a single board and the absence of sapwood on the edges of the board means that a terminus post quem can be applied to the panel. The last heartwood ring was dated 1499, and adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggested that the tree used was felled after 1507. At its widest the board was approximately 376 mm wide, which is unusually wide when compared with the majority of boards seen in panel paintings. As this picture is undated and the board does not seem to have been trimmed prior to use, it is suitable to apply an Eastern Baltic 8-40 year LEHR- usage range to the panel; this gives a conjectural usage-date range of 1507-1539.
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.
The line of the chin before it was extended with the beard can be seen in the x-ray. Surprisingly, very little of the flesh paint modelling on the chin, neck and cheeks can be seen in x-ray. However, the paint was thinly applied and is now thin and abraded in these areas.
X-ray shows where the gilding of the jewelled band extends beyond the current shoulder line and where it has been painted over (although it is not known when this was first overpainted) (see Surface examination).
Paint layers containing lead white are clearly visible: the broad brushstrokes of the background underlayer and the detail of the brocade pattern can be seen in the x-ray, as can the finer brushwork of the shirt and the pearls. The paint mixture in the tunic evidently contains white lead and this was confirmed with paint sample analysis (see x-ray mosaic 01).
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
With infrared reflectography, extensive underdrawing was visible in the face, especially in the nose and eyes, which appear to have been refined and moved down at the painting stage (see IRR mosaic 01). The nose and eyes appear larger in the drawing (see IRR mosaic 02). Infrared reflectography also shows a different jawline in the flesh paint, which had the beard painted over the top to change the shape of the face (this line was also noted during surface examination, and was particularly clear in the x-ray) (see Surface examination and X-ray). The hands are outlined completely, and there are some marks in the fur and costume.
The drawing is almost certainly a tracing, and the lines were traced then changed. The head, neck and outline of coat was originally drawn in further to the right. The hands are also probably a reinforced tracing, perhaps from a stock pattern, but the costume marks were likely to be drawn freehand.
The painting of the hands follows the drawing closely, but for the costume the underdrawing was used more as a general indication of the design than as an exact guide for the painted position of the details. Infrared reflectography also indicated a slight change in the painted line of the shoulder on the left, and showed clearly where the gilding of the jewelled band extends beyond the painted edges (see Surface examination and X-ray). There also appear to have been small changes to the neckline and some costume details.
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 ground is a thick layer of chalk.
The priming is unusually pigmented, which confirmed surface observation of the dark appearance of the flesh paint (see Surface examination). Samples 1, 2, 3 and 4 all show the priming layer, which consists largely of lead white, but with significant quantities of charcoal black and at least two types of red. Tiny particles of red lead are visible, but there is also a deeper red, with much larger particles. In dispersion this appears to be a natural red earth, possibly haematite.
The flesh paint appears to have been painted more thinly over the priming in areas of shadow.
Of the background, sample 3 showed only the mid-green (verdigris) over the priming, but sample 11 contained more layers:
- Ground and priming
- Verdigris layer as sample 3
- Layer of verdigris mixed with lead-tin yellow - this is the brocade pattern
- Traces of a pure copper green glaze
- Dirty varnish
It is difficult to tell how extensive the upper green glaze would have been.
Samples 8, 9 and 10 were taken from three areas of brown, and these showed that rather than simple brown pigments, complex mixtures were used. In the fur, the brown appeared to be painted over black. No losses were available, so a sample (8) of the brown was taken to set as a dispersion. This found that the 'brown' is made up of crimson lake, another red - probably vermilion, azurite, lead white and perhaps a calcite, and carbon black - probably of plant origins (although the black might be from the underlying layer). Sample 9, also taken for dispersion, from the brown paint over the gold of the jewelled band, showed a simpler mixture: crimson lake, black and a warm yellow earth - possibly sienna. A similar mixture was found in sample 10, from the brown patterning on the gold sleeves. This sample was set as a cross-section, and shows very large particles of red lake.
The black of the tunic was also found to be a mixture, of black and red.
The creases in the proper right hand were painted in red lake. The red lake and azurite combination in the slashes (see Surface examination) was confirmed. The irises of the eyes are predominantly azurite, but discoloured varnish makes them appear more green than originally intended.
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
This portrait is quite decorative in appearance and execution, and in general is not painted particularly delicately. However, the textured brushstrokes of the white shirt accurately depict the starched pleats of the fabric used for such a garment. Gilding and glazes of red lake and azurite are used extensively throughout (see micro 13 and micro 18). Although the flesh paint was applied very thinly, other parts employ thick glazes and outlines.
The panel was prepared with a white chalk ground. Over this is a thin, cool, purplish priming layer made with a mixture of black, a bright crimson/purple red (probably a purple-toned earth such as haematite) and lead white (see Paint sampling). This gives the painting, and especially the flesh, a coolish tonality, and contributes to the dark appearance of areas of the flesh paint, although this is also caused by restoration.
There is extensive underdrawing, although the painted image does not follow the lines exactly. This drawing can be seen through the thin flesh paint in many parts of the face, neck and hands (see Infrared reflectography).
Flesh and eyes
The flesh paint is thinly applied over the cool-toned priming layer (see micro 03). There is a great deal of azurite in the irises and whites of the eyes (see micro 01).
The dark tunic with gold slashes, and the lower sleeves, were originally purple: they are painted in red lake, glazed with azurite (see micro 11). The highlights are painted with lead white over the red, and then both are glazed over with the blue. These areas now appear very dark and more brown because the azurite glaze has discoloured. The highlights in the red sleeves are not the uppermost paint layer. Light and shadow is created by manipulating the thickness of red lake glaze, and the brightest highlights were created by applying thick strokes of lead white before the glaze (see micro 20). The red is applied thinly in the light areas, and much more thickly - but still pure red lake - in the shadows. The fur collar overlaps the red sleeves. In the sleeve on the right the fur is painted in a quite crude way in comparison to other paintings, such as NPG 1376 and NPG 3638. Here, the brown area is painted in as a block, edged with a solid line, and then individual hairs are painted over it and the red sleeve (see micro 06). This contrasts with techniques seen elsewhere, where a feathered line has been painted in the underlayer, to help create a convincing representation of the edge of the fur. Substantial areas of the fur appear to have been overpainted, but in places, some of the original detail can be seen, and are more delicate than the depiction at the edges (see micro 21). Under magnification, it seems that the fur is not painted with a brown pigment, but the colour is created using red and black pigments (see Paint sampling for discussion of browns).
Paint layers and gilding
The gold leaf was probably laid in first, and the flesh paint and first layer of the green background were also added at an early stage. The ring on the little finger of the hand on the left was either gilded before the hands were painted, or added over the painted hands in the wrong place, and so part of it had to be painted over again (see micro 08). The initial gilding for the jewelled band was laid in to a point beyond the present shoulder-line on both sides. At the left-hand end of the jewelled band, the layer structure is difficult to assess (see micro 09), but the end of the band is overpainted. The section of gilding which extends under the background also seems to be overpainted. Adjacent areas are quite abraded, and it is possible that this area has also suffered abrasion and was overpainted/reinforced at the same time as a substantial part of the edge of the adjacent shoulder, in order to make it more legible. Surface examination cannot determine the original intention for the ends of the jewelled band (see X-ray).
There is mordant under the gold aglet decorations in the hat (see micro 07). The jewel at the top of the neckline, in the centre of the brooch/pendant, seems to be discoloured green - probably copper green glaze. The layer structure visible under the microscope is gold leaf, then red glaze, then green, then a glaze, then opaque details (see micro 04).
The pale green pattern across the gilded band on the tunic, and on the gold bands on the slashed sleeves has been almost entirely reinforced, but some parts of the original can be seen (see micro 16). The restoration is a modern green glaze, but the original paint contains a mixture of pigments and is much thicker, resulting in a slightly raised pattern, which adds to the original decorative effect. Most of the dots on the jewelled band are 'blobs' of azurite (see micro 05), although some appear black. The azurite was applied over small raised spots of lead white (see micro 15).
The lines around the pearls in the jewelled band were painted initially with red lake, then glazed with a darker layer. This is the same for the linear decoration on the gilded parts of the sleeves (see micro 18). The layer over the red might be a discoloured azurite layer, or brown paint, or later reinforcement.
The white pattern on the gilded section at the top of the shirt is restoration, and does not exactly follow the original pattern, which can be seen beneath (see micro 19).
The background (see micro 12) is painted in a number of layers: an overall green, then the lighter decorations, then maybe a glaze layer, although it is possible that there is not an overall glaze, but just that used to create the fictive shadows of the gold decorations in the upper corners (see micro 14) (see Paint sampling). The light pattern is painted quite thickly, and therefore is in slight relief.
Order of construction
- Chalk ground
- Cool purplish priming
- Gilding applied at an early stage
- Flesh, first layer for background were applied at an early stage, and fur blocked in with brown
- Costume: Sleeves painted in layers: highlights first with glazes applied over them
- Detail applied, such as individual hairs of fur
Lead white, azurite, red lake, red ochre, red lead, carbon black, verdigris, copper green glaze, earth pigments, lead-tin yellow
Changes to composition/pentimenti
Some changes have been made to the line of the profile and chin, and also to the edge of the gilded collar at the shoulders.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
The varnish across the whole surface appears opaque in ultra violet light, with greenish fluorescence. There is also much dark retouching visible over this varnish in ultra violet light, especially in and around the hat, in the fur cape, in the hands, face, neck, and down the panel join.
Ultra violet examination also shows streaky patches of another varnish, or residues of an old varnish, in several places: down the panel join, in the hat, and and at the end of the jewelled band on the left. These areas have a more blue fluorescence. Lighter areas are also visible around the edges.