The transmission of artistic conventions/visual vocabulary in Tudor portraits

Tania String, Bristol University

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council


My paper was concerned with the transmission of artistic conventions within the visual vocabulary of early Tudor portraiture, in particular, the significance of conventions within copies of portraits - which by extension enables us to consider the status of copies in this period and their communicative value. I asked the question, what was a copy a copy of? Where did it stand in relation to its original? To what extent can we identify the repeated use of intelligible artistic motifs within copies that form part of the communication between artist and viewer? That is, did the artist deploy particular conventions in order to make his work accessible to its anticipated recipients, and what are the consequences of these illocutionary conventions for the form and content of copies? We found that an exploration of these questions in the context of earlier sixteenth-century portraits, principally of King Henry VIII, points to an active exchange of models and motifs back and forth across the North Sea between England and the Low Countries.



King Henry VIII, by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, circa 1535-1540 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

King Henry VIII
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
circa 1535-1540
NPG 1376

The images with which I was principally concerned are half-length portraits of Henry VIII, depicting the king as he would have been rendered in the 1530s. The five or more panels are traditionally believed to be Anglo-Flemish in origin: the main examples are in the National Portrait Gallery and the Society of Antiquaries. These panels share a number of compositional elements which point to a common source: in particular we observed a projected shadow of the king and what can be interpreted as the frame, produced as if cast by a strong light source streaming in from the left of the fictive space. In the past these panels have been grouped together with a number of other paintings in a putative workshop of 'The Cast Shadow Master'. But the panels discussed here cast a very particular kind of shadow - one that is materially constructed to repeat the outline of the subject of the painting, not just an amorphous mass thrown onto the back wall. At least that is the ideal aim of the shadow in the portraits of Henry VIII. But on closer inspection we saw that the shadow is in fact, incorrectly rendered in each instance. We asked what are we to make of the fact that these shadows do not correspond to the outline of the subject, and are pitched in a direction that is not consistent with the illusion of a single light source casting a shadow that reproduces the observed contours of the subject? We must assume that these images were not based on a live sitting, which would have resulted in naturalistically rendered shadowing. Somewhere in the chain of transmission, we must assume - unless the original itself contained the mistake, which seems unlikely - the inversion was introduced by a copyist who misunderstood how to construct the shadow. That is to say, we are here in the realm of copies begetting copies, in which fidelity to one's exemplar is the principal concern of the copyist, not improvement or correction. This implies that the copyists, whatever else they saw in their models and whatever their technical shortcomings, believed that their task was one of preservation of the communicative potential of the image through careful copying of conventions.

We demonstrated that these images of Henry bear an intriguing similarity to a portrait of Henry VIII by the Flemish artist Joos van Cleve (c.1481- after 1541). However, unlike our panels, this accomplished portraitist always correctly painted the cast shadows. In each case the shadow has a compositional value, but its anti-naturalistic quality in the Anglo-Flemish panels means that it has a discrete presence within the diegetic space. The vacuity of the shadow, with its free floating, detached quality, perhaps says something about the mechanics of production: was there a pattern which allowed the artist to simply map a shadow onto these panels? What is also different is the attention paid by the artist or artists of the NPG and Society of Antiquaries panels to Henry's portrait features. While the details are somewhat clumsily rendered, there is far more concern with likeness here than in the Joos van Cleve portrait. So what, then, is the possible relationship between these works? Is there the possibility that the artists of the NPG and Society of Antiquaries panels knew of Joos's portrait? Had they perhaps seen it in England or in the Netherlands? Or was there a now lost work, which combined a knowledge of Henry's likeness with Flemish portrait conventions, that links these panels? The precise interrelationships remain unclear, but there is evidence for a nexus of borrowings and derivations criss-crossing the North Sea. This material provides an opportunity to look further into works by unknown artists, and to explore questions about the nature of copying, its modalities, its international quality, the market for copies and the expectations of what a copy should contain in relation to its original or prototype.