‘Done by Holbin … upon a crackt board’: a case study of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Hans of Antwerp

Claire Chorley, Paintings Conservator, The Royal Collection

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage  
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

The forthcoming Royal Collection exhibition: The Age of Cranach, Dürer and Holbein prompted a re-examination of this painting with a view to cleaning and display alongside the near contemporary portraits by Holbein of Dierich Born and William Reskimer, also in The Royal Collection.

Hans Holbein of Antwerp
Hans Holbein, Hans of Antwerp before cleaning
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
X-ray image of Hans Holbein of Antwerp
X-ray image of Hans Holbein, Hans of Antwerp
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II


In his inventory of Charles I’s paintings, written during the 1620s, Abraham Van der Doort describes this painting as being: ‘Done by Holbin…upon a Crackt board...’ indicating an early date for the catastrophic damages we can see on the x-radiograph and associated large losses (arrow A). The x-radiograph also shows the narrow softwood addition at the right-hand side (arrow B) and of the many smaller scattered losses (arrow C).

Holbein’s method

Holbein is well known for his elegant and sophisticated portrait drawings. At present no drawings are known for any of the portraits of the Hanseatic merchants (of which Hans of Antwerp is one). It seems likely that Holbein would have kept to his usual working method and made a detailed portrait drawing. He would then have placed an interleaf rubbed with charcoal between the drawing and the panel, and then pressed onto the drawing with a blind stylus to transfer the outline onto the panel. An example of this method is the portrait of the courtier William Reskimer (Windsor, Royal Library), on which we can see faint traces of indentation on the drawing. The outlines correspond exactly to the painted panel. Following the transfer of the drawing, Holbein typically reinforced the charcoal transfer using a liquid medium.

In the portrait of Hans of Antwerp, the infrared reflectography image reveals varied mark making. There are the fine lines of reinforcement in the important areas such as the face, and freehand sketching in less important areas, such as the shoulder (arrow A) and desk (arrow B). We can see that the shoulder was originally placed higher, and on the desk a series of letters or papers was originally intended. It is particularly exciting to see how freely these lines have been applied. They form a dramatic contrast to the care and precision with which the lines of the face have been drawn discussed below.

Infra-red of Hans Holbein of Antwerp
Hans Holbein, Hans of Antwerp viewed with infrared reflectography showing underdrawing
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
eye detail of Hans Holbein of Antwerp
Hans Holbein, Hans of Antwerp, photomicrograph showing underdrawing in the eye.
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II


The technique of underdrawing in a liquid medium containing carbon black can be seen in the underdrawing in the eye (arrows A & B). Flesh coloured paint has been scumbled over the dark “drawing” paint, which then become the shadowed or darker areas of the eye. This technique is an extension of his technique of drawing on paper and serves to construct the three-dimensional shapes of, for example, the eye lid (arrow A) and the tear duct (arrow B). The shadow to the left of the iris (arrow C) may represent a change in the position of the sitter’s gaze. However, it makes a convincing representation of a three-dimensional eye ball. The lines have been made with a fine brush. The construction lines of the broad areas have been made with a thicker brush.

Structure of the paint layers

The panel has a ground consisting of a conventional chalk glue layer. Over this layer is a salmon pink priming layer, which mimics Holbein’s use of pink prepared paper in his drawings. It provides a mid-tone which would accelerate the production of the final portrait. The pink priming was applied with a bristle brush, whose striations can be seen in raking light adding something of a lively surface. Simple pigment mixtures go to make up the rest of the portrait: black and white in the costume and background; vermillion, white, earth pigments and black for the flesh. Vivid green (copper resinate?) glazes a mixture of green and yellow in the table cloth.

Detail, during cleaning, of hair
Photomicrograph, during cleaning, of hairs represented by single brush strokes
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 

Cleaning the painting

The restoration of the background is probably of an early date if Van der Doort’s comments indicate a terminus ante quem for the large cracks in the panel. The restoration was particularly insoluble and had to be mechanically removed. Cleaning revealed an early, possibly original, varnish layer under the early restoration of the background. This varnish layer considerably aided the removal of the restoration. The history of the restoration of the painting seems to consist of accretion rather than cleaning, resulting in excellent preservation of those parts of the painting that did not receive the initial catastrophic damage. The old restoration carefully worked around the head and was respectful of Holbein’s original paint. The present cleaning revealed the hairs represented by single brush strokes, which make the image so lively and immediate

Attribution of the sitter

The attribution of the sitter rests on the letter he holds in his left hand and is in the act of opening. He is seated with a book, quill, coins and seal on the desk in front of him. The first words of the inscription on the letter appear to be ‘Dem Ersamen…’ or ‘to the honourable’, followed by ‘Stalhof’. There follows a word which could be ‘Johannes’ and thereafter a word which goes under the blade of the knife. It is intriguing to try to decipher this worn inscription.

Detail, during cleaning, of letter
Detail, during cleaning, of letter
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Detail, during cleaning, of the end of the seal
Photomicrograph, during cleaning, of the end of the seal, showing ellipse and crossed lines of reversed merchants’ mark.
The Royal Collection
© 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.


Comparison with the portraits of the merchants Georg Gisze (Staatliche Museen Preussicher Kulturbestiz, Berlin) and Dirck Tybis (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) is useful. In these portraits the merchants’ mark on the letter is reversed on the seal. During cleaning, the end of the seal on the Hans of Antwerp emerged as having the reverse of the merchant’s mark on the letter. It had previously been overpainted to look like a ‘W’. Records of Hanseatic merchants’ marks may confirm or re-attribute the sitter’s identity.

Conclusion

We have seen that a combination of knowledge of Holbein’s working methods and careful examination of the painting during cleaning shed new light on this portrait.

The painting will be on display in the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London, in an exhibition entitled ‘The Age of Dürer, Cranach and Holbein’, when it opens in October 2012.