Sir Thomas More
3 of 308 portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger
- Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database
Sir Thomas More
after Hans Holbein the Younger
oil on panel, early 17th century, based on a work of 1527
29 1/2 in. x 23 in. (749 mm x 584 mm)
Key findings: The materials and handling (and history of the Holbein original) suggest this picture may have been painted in Italy or Austria in the late sixteenth, or early seventeenth century.
The history of the National Portrait Gallery painting is uncertain before 1827. It may be the painting that is documented as being in the possession of Queen Christina of Sweden and which was sold in the Orleans sale in London, April 1793. It is known, however, that the Gallery’s version was sold anonymously by the 5th Duke of Bedford at Christie’s on 30 June 1827 (lot 83). It was bought by Nieuwenhuys and sold by their Brussels branch to William II, King of Holland. After this the painting was bought in at his sale in Paris in 1850 and from there passed by descent to Prince zu Wied, from whose family it was purchased by Dr. Peter Grcic. It was acquired for the National Portrait Gallery in 1964 with contributions from the Pilgrim Trust, Mr. S. Morrison, Mr. K. More, and the Sir Thomas More Appeal Fund.
The Holbein original is in the Frick Collection in New York, and dates from 1527. Strong considered the National Portrait Gallery version to be the best early copy of the Frick original and suggests that it dates from the early seventeenth century and was possibly made in Austria or northern Italy because the panel is made from limewood (Strong, 1969, p. 229). It could, therefore, have been copied from the Frick portrait after it had travelled to Italy. There are slight variations between the two, however, which Strong suggests may be due to parts of the Frick portrait being obscured by dirty varnish. The NPG painting is in good condition but with many minor retouchings.
Notes on likely authorship
The handling suggests a competent late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century continental artist.
Commentary on painting style, technique
Specific areas are painted with great attention to detail, such as the chain of office and the face, which has been very finely blended. The background has been painted with looser handling and wider brushstrokes.
A variety of techniques have been used. Wet-in-wet painting technique has been used in the ledge under the sitter’s arm, where several browns have been blended together. Wet paint has been pulled across dry underlayers, for instance the flesh paint on the sitter’s right cheek has been pulled across a layer of brown to create the illusion of hair. It is possible that the red priming has been deliberately left showing in the corner of the eyes.
Compared to Holbein’s original, the tassels on the green curtain are not very visible. They have been created using very fine grey brush marks over a general tassel shape blocked in with dark paint.
Justification for dating
The panel could not be dated by dendrochronology because it is made from limewood and, therefore, relevant reference material was unavailable. However, the techniques and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.
Drawing and transfer technique
Freely drawn carbon underdrawing can be seen with infrared imaging. Lighter sketching describes the contours of the face and the main features. The crow’s feet around the eyes and the wrinkles in the brow have been more carefully drawn in. The position of the chin and nose have been altered, but there is little change in the paint layers, suggesting the composition was worked out at the drawing stage. The Tudor rose hanging from the chain of office was marked out using a compass, and the compass point and incised line are clearly visible.
Relevance to other known versions:
- the original painting by Holbein is now in the Frick Collection, New York 1912.1.77
There are several other copies known to be in existence, including:
- Lulworth Manor in Wareham, Dorset
- Prado, Madrid (which was given to the museum by Miss Enviequeta Harris in August 1943) P01688
- a version purchased by T. Kelly from Richard Taylor at Sotheby’s on 27 April 1960, lot 92
- Paxton House, Berwickshire, 50P
- an enamel version by Henry Bone with an inscription by Bone on the back was given by Mr John Robertson to the Venerable English College, Rome in July 1966
- a version recorded in the sale-room at Bonham’s on 13 January 2004, lot 139 (oil on canvas)
- Knole, National Trust, 129953
Versions are also recorded as being in the collection of John, 1st Lord Lumley which was last recorded in the Lumley Castle sale of 1785 (probably the T. Kelly version); at Paxton House, Berwickshire; in the collection of the Marquess of Lothian and in the collection of Earl Spencer at Althorp.
Morison, Stanley, The Portraiture of Thomas More by Hans Holbein and after, Cambridge, 1957
Morison, Stanley, and Nicolas Barker, The Likeness of Thomas More, 1963, pp. II ff, pl.
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp. 228-229
Trapp, Joseph, 'The King's Good Servant', Sir Thomas More, National Portrait Gallery, 1977-78, p. 31 (no. 26)
Exhibition of the Royal House of Tudor, The New Gallery, 1890, p. 45 (no. 127)
Princely Magnificence: Court Jewels of the Renaissance, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1981, p. 100, (no. P3)
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Compare high-resolution images against the painting - mainly x-ray and infra-red photography images, but sometimes UV or raking light images - side by side with the ability to zoom in on details.
The panel joins are slightly split and raised in areas. They do not appear to be in danger of moving further but should be monitored. There are numerous batons from an old cradle and buttons on the reverse of the panel.
The painting has suffered from a severe woodworm attack in the past which has been treated. The ground and paint layers appear to be in a good condition with no evidence of further flaking. There are numerous fills and retouchings across the surface relating to the woodworm damage that the panel has suffered in the past. These are visible under the microscope and in ultra violet light but are not visually disturbing. Glazes have also been applied in areas of abrasion.
Number of boards: 3
Panel Orientation: Vertical
Panel condition observations
The panel has suffered from extreme woodworm damage which is visible on the reverse and in the x-rays. Vertical members of a thick cradle are still attached to the reverse of the panel, though the horizontal members have been removed. There are smaller pieces of wood reinforcing splits in the panel. The reverse of the panel has numerous woodworm exit holes. A thick coating of possibly resinous material has been applied over the whole of the back of the panel. There is a red seal in the the centre of the panel and a National Portrait Gallery paper label. Other labels lie under the coating and are now illegible.
An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.
Number of boards: 3
Last date of tree ring: n/a
The panel is made from limewood (confirmed by sample analysis) and therefore cannot be checked against reference data.
A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.
The x-ray is dominated by woodworm holes in the panel which show up as light and dark tunnels throughout the painting. This, combined with the cradle, makes it difficult to read the x-ray. The two vertical joins connecting the three panel boards can be seen. The unusual craquelure pattern in the paint layers is very clear, especially in the lower right-hand corner. Most of the painting appears quite dark in x-ray but certain areas are lighter - especially the highlights on the red rope, the folds in the curtains and the sleeves. The face is also very light and appears to be the most heavily worked area. A reserve has been left for the chain of office. The cord appears more opaque than the red sleeves (see Paint sampling). It is difficult to tell if there are any pentimenti; there are certainly no significant changes to the composition, as would be expected in later copied versions (see x-ray mosaic 01).
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
The underdrawing detected with infrared imaging appears to have been carried out using a dry carbon medium. The lines have been drawn freely.
Traced melinex overlays (made by Martin Clayton, Royal Collection) of the Holbein drawings (Parker 2 and Parker 3) at Windsor Castle, were compared with the painting. The features in the tracing of Parker 2 (status problematic and less likely to be Holbein) fit well but the hat and shoulder lines do not follow those of the NPG painting. The proportions of Parker 3 (considered to be Holbein) are larger than the National Portrait Gallery painting. It is evident, therefore, that a pattern was used for the face and features.
The face is extensively underdrawn. The outline of the face and the main contours of the features have been very lightly sketched in, sometimes just a small line to indicate positioning has been used. The crow's feet and wrinkles on the sitter's brow have been carefully drawn in. Outlines of the hat and hands can be seen and the folds of the curtain have also been marked out. Diagonal lines have been freely sketched in on the collar, probably a notation that this area is fur.
There are changes in the underdrawing, for example the chin was initially drawn in much further to the right and the position of the nose has been altered. This can also be seen clearly in the hands, where the length and positioning of the fingers has been worked out in the underdrawing with some slight alterations. There seem to be few pentimenti in the paint layers, suggesting that the outline of the figure was worked out at the drawing stage (see IRR mosaic 01 and IRR mosaic 02).
Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.
Paint samples were taken to analyse the pigments and layer structure of the painting in January 2009.
There is a thick chalk ground with a relatively thick, opaque reddish priming over it. The priming layer is a complex mixture of pigments with a high proportion of ochres and some white pigments, with traces of dark brown and black. There are translucent inclusions, rather angular in shape, in the mixture. The ground and priming layers can be seen in some cross-sections.
The blue particles in the flesh were identified as azurite.
Black of costume
The black of the costume was identified as bone black. In dispersion it has the rounded appearance and soft brownish character of bone black.
The bright red of the sleeves was identified as vermilion. Traces of a dark red glaze are visible on the surface. Particles of red glaze can be seen in dispersion.
The green in the curtain ranges in tone from the darkest, which appears to be made with a deep pure copper green glaze, to the palest, which contains a high proportion of lead-tin yellow. Samples 1 and 2 show the variations in tone. In sample 1 this is achieved with light green painted in two layers: a lead-tin yellow layer with a copper green glaze over it. Tiny particles of blue suggested that some surface green might be later retouching. The dispersion showed the retouching and the inclusions. In sample 2 the dark green shadow is painted mostly with verdigris in a dark glaze, but lies over a dark layer containing black or perhaps verdigris with black.
Red cord across curtain
Vermilion and red lake were found in the red cord. The vermilion has a more orange tone than in the sleeves. The cord appears more opaque in x-ray. The reason for this is not clear but it suggests either a thicker vermilion layer or a higher mercuric content.
The cross-section and dispersion both show that smalt and azurite are mixed in the same layer.
An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.
Painting style and methods
The red priming can be seen in some parts, showing between the cracks in the paint surface, such as in the green curtain. It is possible that the red priming was intended to be left showing at the corner of the eye. Many parts are painted with great attention to detail, especially the fine blending in the face and the detailing on the chain of office. Background areas are painted with wider brushstrokes and a looser handling.
White chalk ground layer. Warm red priming layer covering the whole panel, which can be seen through upper paint layers. Underdrawing is visible through the paint layers, especially in the crow's feet around the eyes and the outline of the sitter's face (see micro 03).
Paint layer structure
There are blue particles of azurite in the paint mix (see micro 20) (see Paint sampling). Smalt blue is present in the whites of the eyes as very small scattered particles. In the corners of the eyes it is possible that the red ground has been left showing through (see micro 01). Pink flesh paint has been applied around the eye, with white highlight on top. Small brushstrokes are visible and very fine blending was used in this area. The flesh paint has been been painted up to the hat, but a gap between the two is visible. In the gap there is a brown underlayer which can also be seen in the shadows around the sitter's chin and shadow of the nose. The lighter flesh paint is applied on top of these areas. To depict the hair on the sitter's right cheek the painter has pulled strokes of flesh paint over a simple brown layer. Stubble has been applied with small strokes of white paint. Around the nose a brown glaze has been applied to strengthen the shadow. A red glaze has been also been painted over the lips (see micro 04). In both cases the glaze has a more pronounced craquelure than the surrounding paint.
The collar has been very simply painted. The brown underlayer that has been used for shadows in the flesh paint is also used here, with thicker opaque brown paint applied over the top. Lighter and darker passages of brown are used to indicate the texture of fur in some areas. The black paint of the coat has been painted after the collar. Small strokes of black paint have been applied to soften the edges between the two fabrics and to indicate fur. This black is darker than the paint used for the rest of the coat and appears to have been applied when the underlayers were dry (see micro 18).
Brown paint has been used for the mid-tones of the folds and a bright red has also been used (see detail 01). A dark underlayer has been applied to define the shape of the sleeves. A dark brown paint has been used for the mid-tones of the folds and a bright red applied for the highlights. This is probably red lead as it shows up light in x-ray. Remains of a red lake glaze can be seen over the top of the red and brown, which may have originally softened the bright red folds (see micro 15), although it is still a good depiction of a soft velvet material. There is no evidence of the red priming being utilised in this area.
Chain of office
The gilding appears to be gold leaf over a cream mordant. Glazes over the gold are brown and orange for details, with fine highlights in an opaque cream paint (see micro 08). The Tudor Rose hanging from the chain has been marked out using a compass, and the compass point and incised line are clearly visible (see micro 07).
The shape of the ring has been painted in with an opaque orange/brown paint. The flesh paint appears to have been painted after this with small brushstrokes overlapping it. There are remains of gilding on the ring with some visible under the paint of the jewel. This is very abraded but was possibly only applied as a highlight. A reserve appears to have been left for the piece of paper that the sitter is holding.
The green curtain appears to have been painted after the fur collar as it overlaps the paint in some areas. There is quite a lot of retouching in this area, covering small scattered losses. The paint has been applied with quite broad sweeping brushstrokes to describe the folds of the curtain. The red priming layer is prominent in this area showing between cracks in the upper paint layer (see micro 05). A green paint has been used for the mid-tones with a dark green glaze applied over the top for the darkest shadows. A vivid yellow has been applied for the highlights, and this appears to have been the final layer to be applied although in some areas there is wet-in-wet blending with the mid-tones (see micro 17). The tassels on the curtain are not very obvious, especially when compared to Holbein's original. The general shape and shadow has been blocked in with a dark paint and individual tassels have been painted in grey paint with a fine brush (see micro 16). Small comma-like marks of grey paint mark the texture of the fabric where the tassels are joined to the curtain. They are very similar to marks found on the portrait of Kratzer (NPG 5245) used to describe the texture of laces on a coat.
The red rope across the curtain is blocked in with a brownish red paint, applied before the curtain and background wall paint. Highlights to mark the cord of the rope have been applied in red lead, and these brushstrokes show up as very dense areas in x-ray. Over these paint layers a red lake glaze has been applied, similar to the technique used for the red sleeves (see micro 06). The shadow cast by the rope is painted in a medium-rich dark glaze over the paint of the curtain, and very few pigment particles are visible. There is possible underdrawing visible, especially along the right-hand side. Marks indicate it may have been applied with dabs of a wide, flat brush (see micro 05).
Ledge and Roman numerals
The different browns used to depict the ledge under the sitter's right arm are blended wet-in-wet with the darker paint used to create the shadow of the arm. The lighter brown of the top of the shelf is painted over a mid-brown with the shadow underneath the ledge painted afterwards. The Roman numerals are quite abraded and have possibly been strengthened at some point (see micro 19). Under the microscope very fine highlights can be seen along the edge of the letters.
Order of construction
- White chalk ground.
- Reddish priming layer.
- Brown underlayer in the flesh paint.
- The same brown underlayer was used for the shadows of the fur collar. A thicker opaque brown layer was applied over it later in the painting process.
- The black paint on the coat was painted after the fur.
- The green curtain paint overlaps the paint surface of the fur collar and therefore appears to have been painted after the collar.
- The gilding appears to have been applied towards the end of the painting process.
- Final layers of flesh paint on the hand were applied after the gilding for the ring. Final details in the costume and on the gilding were painted at the end of the painting process.
Lead white, bone black, copper green glaze, verdigris, azurite, smalt, vermilion, red lake, lead-tin yellow, red ochre, and other earth pigments
Changes to composition/pentimenti
There do not appear to be any pentimenti in the paint layers, but there are changes in the underdrawing.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
An overall light hazy green fluorescence can be seen covering the panel in examination with ultra violet light; this is the most recent varnish. The area of the sitter's chain has a very strong green fluorescence, and it seems probable that this delicate area of gilding was not cleaned in the 1979 treatment and an older varnish layer remains in this area. The numerous retouchings show up as dark areas (see UV 01). They are mainly vertical in orientation and relate to the woodworm damage the panel has suffered. The area of fingerprints in the background wall also shows up dark and further examination shows that this area is very worn and abraded and has been retouched using a thin glaze, blended with a finger or palm.