Technique and effects of the after-Holbein copyists

Sophie Plender, Senior Painting Conservator (MATB), National Portrait Gallery

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

This talk presented some of the results from the technical examination of a group of copies of portraits by Holbein.  The group included William Butts (NPG 210), Richard Southwell (NPG 4912), Nicholas Kratzer (NPG 5245), Thomas Cromwell (NPG 1727), Nicholas Poyntz (NPG 5583), Thomas More (NPG 4358) and Archbishop William Warham (NPG 2094).  A portrait of Archbishop Warham from Lambeth Palace was examined at the same time for technical comparison with the NPG version.

There are important questions to be asked concerning Holbein’s legacy: Was there a workshop?  Are these paintings by followers?  Two significant observations emerged early in the technical examinations: firstly, analysis with dendrochronology identified that the wood for the panels dates from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries - long after Holbein’s death (Fig.1), and secondly, as the underdrawing and paint handling methods cannot be compared very closely with each other or with Holbein’s techniques, the paintings appear to have been made in several different workshops.

Fig. 1 Dendochronology results

NPG No. and sitter

Wood type and origin

Dendro date: last tree ring

Likely date of production

Date of Holbein original

210 Sir William Butts

Eastern Baltic oak

1563 (tree felled after 1571)

c.1580s- 1590s

1543

4912 Sir Richard Southwell

English oak

1578 (tree felled after 1588)

c.1590s- 1600s

1536

5245 Nicholas Kratzer

Eastern Baltic oak

1577 (tree felled after 1585)

c.1590s-1600s

1528

1727 Thomas Cromwell

Eastern Baltic oak

1587

c.1590s-1600s

1533-34

2094 William Warham

Eastern Baltic oak

1600 (tree felled) after 1605

c.1610s- 1620s

1527

William Warham, Lambeth Palace version

Eastern Baltic oak - check

Tree felled after 1568

c.1570s-80s

1527

5583 Sir Nicholas Poyntz

Oak

No results obtained

late 16th century

1535

4358 Sir Thomas More

Probably limewood

No results obtained

late 16th century

1527


The wood for most of the panels was identified as oak from the eastern Baltic, but the portrait of Richard Southwell is painted on English oak, the wood for the portrait of Thomas More is probably lime, and Nicholas Poyntz is painted on paper laid onto oak panel.  Holbein is known to have used paper for underdrawing and then pasted it on to a panel as for the portrait of Benedict von Hertenstein, 1517, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

NPG 4912 Photomicrograph detail of the shirt, showing red painted outlines beneath the surface

NPG 4912
Photomicrograph detail of the shirt showing red painted outlines beneath the surface

The underdrawing for the works in this group was made with a variety of media.  Carbon used as a chalk or applied in a wet medium with a brush was detected with Infrared reflectography (IRR) in the portraits of More and Warham. Graphite or metalpoint was used in the portraits of Cromwell, Kratzer and Poyntz. The fine underdrawing has a slight glitter, when examined with microscopy, but the medium has not yet been identified precisely. In the portrait of Richard Southwell the design was laid in with red lake paint applied with a brush, a technique observed sometimes in other paintings of the period. No underdrawing was detected on the portrait of William Butts.

NPG 1727 Photomicrograph detail of the eye

NPG 1727
Photomicrograph detail of the eye

The painters of these copies were not following Holbein’s paint handling methods and style. None of the paint surfaces have the very finely detailed and subtle blending of paint that is characteristic of Holbein’s technique. William Butts is the earliest portrait in the group.  The paint has a graphic quality with the features drawn in with very fine brush strokes of brown and black paint.  The portraits of Cromwell, Kratzer, Poyntz, Cromwell and Warham were painted with thick brushwork containing large pigment particles. The paint handling cannot be compared very closely but there are some similarities in method, for example, the textured yellow highlights in Poyntz and Kratzer, and the systematic method for blending along the eyelashes in Poyntz and Cromwell. The paint on Cromwell has a paste-like texture with hard edges which cannot be compared with the other portraits.

Most of the paintings have a grey priming layer, also used by Holbein, but the portrait of Thomas More has a reddish priming. This copy was probably not produced in England, but perhaps in Switzerland.  The consistency of the fine fluid brushwork seems closer to Holbein’s paint than the thick paint of most of the other paintings in this group.

NPG 2094 Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the head

NPG 2094
Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the head

Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the head of William Warham, Lambeth Palace

Infrared reflectogram mosaic detail of the head of William Warham, Lambeth Palace
Image: Tager Stoner Richardson

The NPG portrait of Archbishop Warham dates from the early seventeenth century and the paint is applied thickly. The Lambeth version is late sixteenth century and the paint is applied more thinly with fine brushstrokes and more fluid paint.  The painting style indicates a Netherlandish painter. The NPG version has extensive detailed underdrawing in a carbon medium. In the Lambeth painting the outlines and hatching are heavily underdrawn in carbon black, applied mostly with a brush. The flesh paint is very thinly applied and the underdrawing can be seen through the surface, whereas it is not visible in the NPG version.

A traced overlay of the Holbein drawing of Warham in the Royal Collection, of only the head and shoulders, fits well over both the Lambeth and the NPG painting, but the Lambeth painting seems to follow the outlines most closely. The traced overlay of the NPG painting does not exactly fit the outlines of the Lambeth painting. The spatial relationships between the different elements of the composition vary. This could be due to slippage but it seems more likely that the pattern was in several parts. The NPG version seems to be more condensed than the Lambeth one but the green tablecloth at the lower edge is more extended. The proportions of the tablecloth in the Lambeth painting are closer to the Holbein original in the Louvre, and there are other details such as the lettering, which are closer to the Louvre painting than to the NPG version.

This raises questions: Did the copyist have access to the original when painting the NPG version?  Was the copyist using patterns or copying a painting?  Was the copy made from the original or the Lambeth version?

Examination of the range of techniques used in these paintings suggests that there must have been a number of workshops producing copies of Holbein’s portraits in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.  Evidently there was a demand for these copies but there are questions concerning how they were produced.  Were Holbein’s patterns available?  Were copies of his patterns in circulation? Or were the paintings made by tracing and copying the original painted portraits? 

Bibliography

Foister, S.‘The Production and Reproduction of Holbein’s Portraits’ in ed. Karen Hearn Dynasties: painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, Tate Publishing, 1995, pp.21-26.

Ainsworth, M. ‘’Paternes for Phiosioneamyes’ Holbein’s Portraiture Reconsidered’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 132, 1990, pp. 173-86.

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.