Holbein and his copyists

Susan Foister, Director of Collections, National Gallery

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)

This paper first offered a brief survey of something of what we know concerning the working practices of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) working in England from 1526-8 and then by 1532 to his death in London in 1543, in order to provide a basis for assessing the National Portrait Gallery copies and then considered some issues surrounding the making of copies of Holbein’s portraits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The materials available to painters working in Northern Europe during the sixteenth century and even beyond were relatively limited with little scope for local variation and the techniques used to paint with them were similarly consistent. There is therefore relatively little scope for technical means of distinguishing the work of Holbein in making portraits in oil paint from that of his copyists. Some of Holbein’s paintings have a pink underlayer similar to the priming of drawings associated with Holbein’s second English visit, but a similar pink layer is also found in the portrait ‘A Man in a Black Cap’ by John Bettes, 1545 (Tate N01496) and now in some other portraits examined as part of this project, suggesting this practice was more widespread than hitherto believed.

Holbein’s portrait drawings may have been acquired by his employer Henry VIII soon after his death and although the drawings may have been copied for use in the workshop during his lifetime and subsequently, they are not sufficiently detailed to provide a basis for faithful painted copies such as those in the NPG. 

There was clearly both admiration and demand for Holbein’s work in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as collections such as those of Lord Lumley and the Earl of Arundel indicate. The key questions in this respect are how, when and where these copies were made. In particular, could they have been made directly after Holbein’s originals?  Where were these originals? Were multiple copies made after then? Or did copies proliferate which were themselves derived from copies? Were copies of Holbein’s portraits made for their intrinsic interest as people of repute, or out of a passion for Holbein?  Were some copies made for families and others for collectors?


William Warham, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1527) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Warham
after Hans Holbein the Younger
early 17th century (1527)
NPG 2094

Nicholas Kratzer, after Hans Holbein the Younger, late 16th century (1528) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Nicholas Kratzer
after Hans Holbein the Younger
late 16th century (1528)
NPG 5245

Sir Richard Southwell, after Hans Holbein the Younger, late 16th century (1536) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Richard Southwell
after Hans Holbein the Younger
late 16th century (1536)
NPG 4912

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex
after Hans Holbein the Younger
early 17th century (1533-1534)
NPG 1727

The complex early histories of four portraits by Holbein - Archbishop Warham, Nicholas Kratzer, Thomas Cromwell, and Richard Southwell - were considered alongside what we now know of the dates of the NPG versions from the dendrochronological results, as well as other evidence concerning their provenance to try to shed some light on the context in which some of these copies could have been made. The new evidence for dating as well as other technical information permits some speculation concerning the ownerships of the originals at the time the NPG copies were made, as well as some possible reasons for the copies being produced. The NPG copy of Warham dates from the early seventeenth century and therefore cannot be associated with the departure of Holbein’s original from Lambeth Palace in 1575. Conversely the NPG copy of Richard Southwell can probably be dated from some time before 1600 and therefore cannot be associated with the acquisition of the Earl of Arundel’s original by Cosimo de Medici; it is not on Baltic oak like the others and was possibly made for a member of Southwell’s family. 

Further investigation of provenances is certainly needed.  But it would also be useful to compare more copies in order to try to decide their order of derivation. Tracings and studies of underdrawing may help to determine the relationships between copies. 

Bibliography

Campbell, L., and S. Foister, A. Roy (eds.), Early Northern European Painting, National Gallery Technical Bulletin 18, 1997

Foister, S., 'Workshop or Followers? Underdrawing in Some Portraits Associated with Hans Holbein the Younger' in Le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture, colloque IX 1991, Louvain-la-Neuve 1993, pp. 113-124

Foister, S., ‘The Production and Reproduction of Holbein’s Portraits’ in ed. K. Hearn, Dynasties, Tate Gallery, 1995, pp. 21-6

Foister, S., ‘”My foolish curiosity”: Holbein in the Collection of the Earl of Arundel’, Apollo, August 1996, pp. 51-6

Foister, S., and M. Wyld and A. Roy, 'Hans Holbein's A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling', National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol.15, 1994, pp.6-19

Foister, S., and A. Roy and M. Wyld, Making and Meaning: Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, National Gallery, 1997

Foister, S., ‘Holbein’s paintings on canvas: the Greenwich festivities of 1527’ (with an appendix by J. Kirby), in M. Roskill and J. A. Roy and M. Wyld, ‘The Ambassadors and Holbein’s Techniques for Painting on Panel’ in M. Roskill and J. O. Hand, eds., Hans Holbein: Paintings, Prints and Reception. Studies in the History of Art 60 National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001, pp. 108-123

Foister, S., Holbein and England, 2004

Roy, A., and M. Wyld, ‘The Ambassadors and Holbein’s Techniques for Painting on Panel’ in M. Roskill and J. O. Hand, eds., Hans Holbein: Paintings, Prints and Reception. Studies in the History of Art 60 National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001, pp. 97-107

Strong, R., Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969