Designs by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)

Details of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), after a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543)
NPG 4358 showing the sitter’s face and Tudor Rose pendant.

The Making Art in Tudor Britain project has examined eight portraits ‘after Hans Holbein the Younger' in the National Portrait Gallery collection using various types of technical analysis. This research allowed for a closer look at how images originally painted by Hans Holbein came to be copied or repeated. This also led to a better understanding of the conditions under which these paintings were made, why they were created and how they were viewed by their audiences. The sitters of all eight portraits are important people from the reign of King Henry VIII.


NPG 210

NPG 210
Sir William Butts
(d.1545), physician

16th century, after a portrait by Holbein from c.1540-43 now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

NPG 1727

NPG 1727
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (c.1485-1540), statesman

16th century, after a portrait by Holbein from 1533-34 now in the Frick Collection, New York

NPG 5245

NPG 5245
Nicholas Kratzer (1487-c.1550), mathematician and astronomer

Late 16th century, after a portrait by Holbein from 1528 now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

NPG 4358

NPG 4358
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Lord Chancellor, scholar, author of Utopia

16th century, after a portrait by Holbein from 1527 now in the Frick Collection, New York

NPG 5583 NPG 5583
Sir Nicholas Poyntz (1510-57), courtier, Sheriff of Gloucestershire

16th century, after a drawing by Holbein from c.1535 now in the Royal Collection

NPG 4912 NPG 4912
Sir Richard Southwell
(1504-64), courtier and official

Late 16th century, after a portrait by Holbein from 1536 now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

NPG 1119 NPG 1119
Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard
(d.1542), 5th Queen of Henry VIII

Late 17th century, after a portrait attributed to Holbein from c.1540 now in The Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

NPG 2094 NPG 2094
William Warham
(c.1450-1532), Archbishop of Canterbury

Early 17th century, after a portrait by Holbein from c.1527 now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris


Question 1: Why were these copies made?

Detail of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (c.1485-1540), after a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), NPG 1727

Detail from the portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex (c.1485-1540),
after a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543),
NPG 1727

Holbein first came to England in 1526-8 and returned for a second visit in 1532 when he remained until his death in 1543. He was recognised as an artist of remarkable talent and his patrons included not only the King, but many courtiers and noble visitors. His work was greatly in demand, particularly during his second period of time in England.

Details for a portrait if Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Holbein (NPG 1727), showing the skilful handling of the copyist

Details for a portrait if Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Holbein (NPG 1727), showing the skilful handling of the copyist

There are a range of reasons why additional versions or copies of an original portrait may have been made. For example, over the course of the sixteenth century the practice of collecting portraits became more popular among the nobility in England. Clients may have commissioned versions of their portraits for the collections of friends and family. Likenesses were collected and displayed in galleries and throughout country houses, depicting not only monarchs but also courtiers and their wives, foreign diplomats, statesmen and even writers and others of fame and talent.



Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard, after Hans Holbein the Younger, late 17th century - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard
after Hans Holbein the Younger
late 17th century
NPG 1119

This portrait of an unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard (NPG 1119), highlights one of the many problems found when dating versions and copies. The original version, now in The Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, was identified as Catherine Howard but this has since proved to be incorrect.

The painting style of the copy is more consistent with late seventeenth or early eighteenth-century workmanship. There is a variation in the quality of paint handling throughout the image. For example, the hands, face and fabric appear fairly simply painted, while the jewellery is very finely painted.

It is possible that the sitter was a member of the Cromwell family who once owned the picture. Previously it had been in the collection of a descendant of Oliver Cromwell. It is possible that this was a copy made for a descendant eager to trace or prove ancestry.

Detail showing the hands (NPG 1119)

Detail showing the hands (NPG 1119)




Detail showing the skilfully painted jewel at the top of the skirt

Detail showing the skilfully painted jewel at the top of the skirt


Question 2: Dating the panel... at what point were these copies made?

Evidence from dendrochronology has provided some surprising results. Nearly all the National Portrait Gallery versions of portraits after Hans Holbein were proved to date from between thirty and sixty years after Holbein's death. Therefore, they appear to be skilled copies produced for later collectors, either as examples of Holbein's skill in constructing portrait composition or because of a demand for a portrait of the individual sitter.

NPG no.

Sitter

Date of original portrait

Copied image

No. of boards

Last tree ring date

Date range for the felling of the tree

Wood type

210

 

Sir William Butts

1540-3

2

1563

1571-1603

Eastern Baltic oak

1727

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex

1533-4

3

1587

1595-1627

Eastern Baltic oak

5245

Nicholas Kratzer

1528

3

1577

1585-1617

Eastern Baltic oak and unknown

4358

 

Sir Thomas More

1527

3

Made of limewood or alder so cannot be checked against reference data

5583

Sir Nicholas Poyntz

c.1535

1

No results could be obtained

Painted on paper and glued to an oak board

4912

 

Sir Richard Southwell

1536

1

1578

After 1588

English oak

1119

Unknown woman, formerly Catherine Howard

16th century

3

1609

1612-44

German - Polish oak

2094

 

William Warham

1527

3

1600

1605-21

Eastern Baltic oak

The table above displays information gained from the use of dendrochronology in the Making Art in Tudor Britain project. The date of original portrait refers to the date of the portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Within the table is also the date of the last tree ring from the wooden panel of the National Portrait Gallery version, followed by the estimated date range for the felling of the tree used to make the board. The final column indicates the wood type used for the panel. There is some variation, although Eastern Baltic oak is the most commonly used type.


Question 3: How were copies made?

NPG 2094

William Warham, after Hans Holbein the Younger (NPG 2094)

William Warham, after Hans Holbein the Younger, Lambeth Palace
By kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

Although many Holbein copies exist, the high quality of the work Holbein created is rarely matched. However, the quality of some of the versions after Holbein, and their dating within the sixteenth or seventeenth century, makes them worthy of further study.

Holbein himself was known to make copies and was well equipped with his own drawings and patterns to make replicas. Several included notes on colours and fabrics. The outlines were transferred by tracing or by pricking holes and pouncing (shaking charcoal dust through the holes to mark out a pattern). Whether Holbein's drawings were available for use directly after his death is as yet unclear.

Traced overlay showing the similarity in composition between the two versions of a portrait of William Warham after Hans Holbein the Younger, pictured above.

Infrared reflectograph of NPG 2094 showing underdrawing
Image: Tager Stonor Richardson

All eight of the versions after Holbein in the National Portrait Gallery collection are of varying quality and skill. The portraits are all by different artists indicating that numerous different late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century workshops would have been able to produce copies after Holbein. It seems likely that many of the copies were made by artists who had access to the original Holbein painting (or direct patterns from the original) as the features and proportions of the figures are often matched with considerable exactitude.

For example, the National Portrait Gallery portrait of William seems to have been made using a pattern traced from Holbein's original painting of Warham, now at the Musée du Louvre, Paris. It is heavily underdrawn which implies careful preparation. Although some of the underdrawing is visible in normal light, it is clearer in the infrared reflectogram pictured above. The bold definite lines indicate strengthening of the line over an initial tracing.

The drawing in the face shows features and wrinkles along with hatching that indicates shading. There are also freehand marks that appear less rigid to the original construction.

This magnified image showing a detail of the lettering on the book reveals underdrawing for the letters.

Underdrawing can also been seen in this detail of the fur cuff.