Portraits of Henry VIII

King Henry VIII
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
circa 1535-1540
NPG 3638

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

King Henry VIII
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist
circa 1520
NPG 4690

The development of portraiture as a genre in early sixteenth-century England, coupled with Henry VIII’s desire to present himself as a powerful monarch whose influence stretched beyond England, meant that Henry VIII’s likeness was far more widely replicated than that of his predecessors. Portraits were adopted as a symbol of loyalty during the religious and political turmoil of his reign and ownership of a portrait of the king came to demonstrate allegiance to the Crown. The relatively large number of surviving portraits of Henry VIII is testament to this increased level of domestic demand. Nonetheless, the king rarely sat for his portrait and most surviving images are versions copied from patterns.

Three of the Gallery’s portraits of Henry VIII have recently undergone technical examination in order to explore the techniques used in their production. Each of these portraits offers an alternative image of the king to that presented by Hans Holbein the Younger in the Whitehall cartoon in c. 1536-7. It was this likeness that ultimately came to serve as the touchstone image of the king, and it was used as the main pattern for portraits of Henry for the remainder of his reign.

The portrait of Henry VIII in a dark tunic with a fur collar (NPG 4690) was painted around 1520 and follows the format of earlier portraits of English kings. The spandrels in the top corners contain the Tudor heraldic emblems of the rose and portcullis and the composition consciously imitates the portraiture of the Burgundian court. It is likely that it also served a traditional purpose and may well have been commissioned as a gift for a visiting diplomat or an English courtier.

The two later portraits of Henry (NPG 1376 and NPG 3638) were probably produced at some point between 1535 and 1540, and although they still follow the Burgundian model of a fairly contemplative image of the king within a small format, it is clear that this is the man whom Holbein would turn into an icon.

How many different images of Henry VIII were produced?

Detail of the face (NPG 4690)

Although the image of Henry VIII that stemmed from the paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger is now familiar to many, Holbein was by no means the only artist to paint the king’s portrait. Throughout Henry’s reign portraits were produced by numerous artists; however, few artists were granted sittings with the king and instead relied on a limited number of face patterns. NPG 4690 shows Henry VIII at an earlier age, whilst still married to Katherine of Aragon and before Holbein came to England. He is easily identifiable though his long nose and small, but very blue, eyes. The picture appears rather formulaic and was perhaps produced to meet a growing demand for portraits of the king at court. This suggestion is supported by the survival of other versions of this image in private collections.

NPG 1376 and 3638 show Henry at a later date, probably his mid-forties, and there are many similarities in their depictions of the king’s features, in particular the small eyes and mouth, the long and narrow nose, and the reddish brown hair worn over the ears with a reddish beard, which in 1519 the Venetian ambassador had reported ‘looked like gold’.

The artists who painted these works have not been identified. Stylistically, the paintings have certain Netherlandish characteristics, but the paintings could have been produced in England, either by émigré artists or in workshops of native artists as new skills were acquired when painters worked collaboratively.

Details of the eyes (NPG 1376 and 3638)

Detail of the beard (NPG 3638)

How do we know when these pictures were made?

Dendrochronological analysis (tree-ring dating) can be used to date the wooden support of a painting, and therefore, to suggest when the portrait was painted. NPG 4690 was painted on a Baltic oak panel, made from a tree which was felled after 1507 and which was likely to have been used at some point between 1507 and 1539. This date range can be narrowed down through stylistic and structural analysis and through assessing the likely age of the sitter, and as a result this painting has been dated to circa 1520.

The portrait of Henry in a red slashed tunic (NPG 1376) was painted upon Baltic oak and the support was constructed from two panels from the same tree. The last heartwood tree ring can be dated to 1504, which suggests that the panel was used at some point between 1512 and 1544. The portrait of Henry in a gold slashed tunic (NPG 3638) was also constructed from two boards, but in this case they each came from a different tree. The older of the two boards appears to have been felled after 1521 and was most likely used between 1521 and 1553. As the Holbein likeness of Henry VIII became dominant reasonably quickly, it would seem likely that the face patterns for these portraits predate the Whitehall cartoon, which was made in 1536-7, and, therefore, that the portraits themselves were made circa 1535-40.

Infrared reflectogram mosaic of the face showing the underdrawing (NPG 4690).
Image: Tager Stonor Richardson

How were these paintings produced?

In NPG 4690 the drawing to lay out the king’s features was almost certainly traced, which could explain why the picture appears rather formulaic.  However, the drawing was then altered freehand: the eyes and nose were refined and moved lower, and were also made slightly smaller during the painting stage. The original line of the chin can be seen in the x-ray and with infrared reflectography. It is possible that the artist was adapting a face pattern that was originally intended to depict Henry VII or Prince Arthur as the underdrawn pattern shows the features of a thinner faced man with larger almond shaped eyes.

Face patterns may have circulated amongst artists and workshops.  This possibility is supported by the similarity of the portrait of Henry in a red slashed tunic (NPG 1376) to another surviving portrait in the Society of Antiquaries.  The similarities that exist between the hands in NPG 1376 and NPG 3638 suggest that a pattern may also have been used to mark out the position of the sitter, and working in this way would have facilitated the production of multiple copies.

NPG 1376 and 3638 also share some technical characteristics: both feature ‘dab and twist’ brushwork in the collar, where lead white was applied with a short brush, dabbed on and twisted as the brush was drawn up.

Some areas also suggest that some of the artists were working with magnification. In NPG 1376 individual hairs have been put in at the edge of the hat and some of the black paint has been flicked downwards into the hair. There are also some white strokes amongst these which are very precise and only visible under the microscope.

Details of the hands on the right showing the similarity between the two portraits (NPG 1376 and 3638)

Photomicrograph details showing the ‘dab and twist’ technique (NPG 1376 and 3638)

Further illustrations of the level of detail of the technique can be seen in the photomicrograph images of the fur in both paintings.

Photomicrograph detail of the hair (NPG 1376)

Photomicrograph details of the fur (NPG 1376)

Photomicrograph details of the fur (NPG 3638)