The contexts for the production and demand for painted versions and copies in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century

Tarnya Cooper (Curator, Sixteenth Century Collections)

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstracts from Academic Workshops  (2007-8)

Recent research on several versions of portraits after Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) in the Gallery's collection has indicated that virtually all date from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. This evidence can be confirmed by a combination of dendrochronology and stylistic analysis. This indicates a demand for images of the members of the court of Henry VIII around 40-70 years after the originals was first painted. This paper attempted to correlate what we already know about the demand for copies in the Tudor and Jacobean period with the recent evidence about Holbein variants and copies, and raised some questions about when, why and how copies were made.

Catherine of Aragon, formerly called Catherine Parr, by kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

Katherine of Aragon, formerly called Katherine Parr, by kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

Catherine of Aragon, formerly called Catherine Parr, detail of the back of the panel, by kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

Katherine of Aragon, formerly called Katherine Parr, detail of the back of the panel, by kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

Artistic practice across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century relied upon the duplication of motifs, designs, and complete compositions. Yet in England, as a result of the demand from patrons for portraits of specific sitters and the lack of opportunity to take likenesses from the life, the persistent use of established portrait patterns was commonplace. It is clear that patterns were copied by numerous workshops, sometimes with subtle adjustment to costume or colouring to provide variation. Therefore the existence of numerous - apparently contemporary, or at least reasonably early - portraits of the same sitter in the same composition is a consistent feature of the extant examples of Tudor portraiture.  Many of these extant images were once part of sets of kings and queens or other groups which hung together.  There are, for example at least six extant early versions of portraits of Catharine of Aragon.1 An early portrait from Lambeth, variously called Unknown Woman or Catharine Parr, can now be identified as a reasonably early portrait of Katherine of Aragon. The picture is extremely interesting in that it still remains in an original engaged frame with the original hanging mechanism still evident (two holes at the back of the frame from which ribbon, string or leather cord could be tied). This portrait appears to be of a type that may have acted as a companion to an early, (i.e. pre Holbein, c. 1520s) portrait of Henry VIII (similar for example to NPG 4690). The Lambeth Catharine of Aragon cannot be dated by dendrochronology due the engaged frame (which was always designed to be a fixed device), but in terms of both costume and style it appears to date from around the 1520s. When and why many of these versions of the Tudor royal family and courtiers were produced and how the sources evolved are questions this project seeks to address more fully over the course of the next few years.

Nicholas Kratzer
after Hans Holbein the Younger
late 16th century, based on a work of 1528
NPG 5245

Versions and copies after Holbein

The National Portrait Gallery Holbein variants derive from entirely different sources and were purchased between 1866 and 1979 from private collections, dealers and the wider art market.  They largely appear to derive from different workshops and thus have nothing in common as a group other than the relationship of the source to Holbein.  Therefore it would seem likely that this evidence (based upon technical analysis) might indicate that many copies after Holbein in other collections belong to this later period.  It certainly appears that there was an emerging market in the later sixteenth century for portraits of members of the court of Henry VIII, or perhaps as Holbein’s reputation continued to be celebrated, for compositions by Holbein himself.

The following dendrochronology results were found on NPG versions after Holbein:

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


4912 Sir Richard Southwell

English oak

1578 (tree felled after 1588)

c.1590s- 1600s


5245 Nicholas Kratzer

Eastern Baltic oak

1577 (tree felled after 1585)



1727 Thomas Cromwell

Eastern Baltic oak




2094 William Warham

Eastern Baltic oak

1600 (tree felled) after 1605

c.1610s- 1620s


William Warham, Lambeth Palace version

Eastern Baltic oak - check

Tree felled after 1568



1119 Unknown woman, called Catherine Howard

German/ Polish oak

1609 (with sapwood)

late 17th century of later on stylistic grounds



William Warham
after Hans Holbein the Younger
early 17th century, based on a work of 1527
NPG 2094

William Warham, by kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners

William Warham, by kind permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners


We know that occasionally two versions of specific portraits were either produced by Holbein or his studio, or were in existence during his lifetime. For example, two portraits existed of Archbishop Warham in the 1520s one sent on to Erasmus, another kept in England (and probably once at Lambeth Palace), however today only one original version by Holbein survives (Musee de Louvre).2 Two late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century versions also exist; one at Lambeth Palace and the other in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 2094). Although documentary evidence is missing, it is possible that the Lambeth version may have been commissioned when the original Holbein was sold, probably before 1590. The current Lambeth Warham version is not in the best condition, yet the handling appears more refined than the NPG version and the underdrawing is more extensive and more carefully executed. Evidence from stylistic analysis and dendrochronology indicates it is the earlier version. 

Overlaid tracings of NPG 2094 and the portrait of Warham at Lambeth Palace

Overlaid tracings of NPG 2094 and the portrait of Warham at Lambeth Palace

Close analysis of how the Holbein versions were painted indicates that while the compositions are very close to Holbein originals the painting style and technique does not bear comparison. The level of detail found in the copies, the correspondence in scale and the exact use of the correct colours appears to indicate that copyists would have had direct access to the original Holbein portraits.  As in the case of the two Warham copies the compositional patterns are very close, yet they do not match up in alignment when all the features are traced. The patterns therefore appear to be copied from a common source, but not in their entirety and were perhaps transferred in several pieces (maybe as many as six).

Were patrons or purchasers acquiring a ‘Holbein’ or a truthful image of an individual sitter originally taken from life? For Lambeth Palace - as for many institutional patrons - the sitter must have been of prime importance but into the second quarter of the seventeenth-century, consideration of authorship may have had increasing importance. For the later sixteenth century collector or patron it is questionable whether the authorship of the picture lay with the brilliance of the original composition or in the facture of its making? The late sixteenth-century collector John Lumley (c.1533-1609) certainly encountered this difficulty when he tried in his inventory of his large painting collection to disentangle Holbein originals from Holbein copies. Although the Lumley inventory of 1590 lists eight portraits by Hans Holbein the authorship is qualified in a slightly later addition changing the number of portraits actually by Holbein to three. This would appear to indicate a gradual awareness of the nature of authorship as residing in the facture of the making.3

I am grateful to the Making Art in Tudor Britain research team (Sophie Plender, Helen Dowding and Polly Saltmarsh) for their work in compiling the technical evidence for this paper. I am also grateful to Nicola Pickering and Catherine Daunt for additional help with research.

1. At least six apparently late sixteenth or seventeenth-century examples exist at Merton College Oxford, Windsor Castle, Dean of Ripon, Duke of Devonshire, Petworth House NT, Private Collection (see National Portrait Gallery Heinz Archive sitter boxes ‘Katherine of Aragon’).  We might expect these to have been painted in the Marian period when as the Mother of Mary I, Catharine of Aragon’s reputation and status as Henry’s first and only legitimate wife was resurrected. But equally at the end of the Elizabethan period or throughout the Jacobean period these portraits would have had equal currency as simply one painting in a set of kings and queens, where Katherine of Aragon’s inclusion (probably alongside Anne Boleyn) would play an important part in explaining recent religious and political history, following the break with the Roman Catholic church.

2.Susan Foister, Holbein and England, 2004, p.266-7.
A Portrait of William Warham by Holbein is listed in Archbishop Parker’s inventory in 1575 valued at £5.  This may be the current Louvre version, which was in collection of Louis 14th by 1671 having come via Flemish agent Andreas de Loo (Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel (1585-1646).

3.See article: ‘The Portraits in the Lumley Inventory’ by Catharine MacLeod, Tarnya Cooper and Margaret Zoller in The 1590 Lumely Inventory edited by Mark Jones, 2010.