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Early portraits don't generally have much background but do incorporate symbols, for example; crowns, jewellery and special clothes. Holbein was an artist working during the reign of Henry VIII, and was famous for his portraits of the king. Holbein revolutionised portraiture by using symbols to illustrate political history. This can be seen clearly in the regal pose adopted in the magnificent drawing he made of Henry VIII and his father Henry VII. The image of Henry VIII is as powerful now as it ever was and he is instantly recognisable - an extraordinary feat considering that this drawing was made almost 500 years ago. Holbein was one of the first artists to use perspective in England.

King Henry VIII; King Henry VII; Elizabeth of York; Jane Seymour by George Vertue
King Henry VIII; King Henry VII; Elizabeth of York; Jane Seymour
by George Vertue, after Remigius van Leemput, after Hans Holbein the Younger line engraving,1737

This is a copy of what the original Whitehall mural looked like. The Whitehall Palace burnt down in 1698.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), the great German artist of the Northern Renaissance, was known for his self-portraits and prints. Dürer's woodcuts (a type of print) of 1525 illustrate how artists used gridded frames to help them place their sitters in perspective.

Albrecht Dürer Woodcut 1895-1-22-730 - © The British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Woodcut 1895-1-22-730
© The British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Woodcut 1895-1-22-733 - © The British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Woodcut 1895-1-22-733
© The British Museum

Inigo Jones
after an engraving by Robert van Voerst, after Sir Anthony van Dyck
NPG 3128

In 1614, Lord Arundel (1585-1646) visited Rome with his protégé Inigo Jones. Whilst Arundel and his wife Alathea were collecting antiquities, Jones furthered his studies of art and architecture. On returning to England, Jones worked for King Charles and his French Queen Henrietta Maria, producing masques (types of plays that glorified the monarchy) written by Ben Jonson.


In 1617, Inigo Jones' drawing of the first scene the masque "The Vision of Delight" is described as " a street in perspective ". His set gives the audience an impression of how a street of classical buildings might look; very different from the medieval styles that they would have been familiar with. Jones used perspective in his design work to educate the court, encouraging this strata of society to relate to and enjoy the new avant-garde architecture. This drawing illustrates the creation of perspective within the theatre by Gerard de Lairesse.

Inigo Jones had been inspired by Renaissance and Classical Italianate architecture. We can see his cutting edge designs for the sculpture and picture galleries, which form the backdrops of the twin portraits by Daniel Mytens. We know that Jones refurbished these galleries for Lord Arundel, but Mytens' two portraits further embellish the redecoration. Contemporary accounts state that these portraits were painted as a gift for the art dealer Dudley Carleton, Viscount Dorchester (see NPG 3684) . Carlton, who lived in Venice, was unlikely to see the real thing to verify the painted version of Jones' work). This is a good example of how portraits can not only enhance a sitters' vanity by improving their looks, but also their status by adding specific elements to their recorded (and invented) environment.

This pair of portraits illustrates contemporary knowledge of the new system of perspective and also develops the idea of the sitter's personal context within the painted portrait. Receding behind them, we can clearly see their collections of portraits and marble sculpture. The use of perspective allows the viewer to feel that the corridors behind the sitters really do go off into the background, and that this is a prime example of creating 'depth' in a picture.


Although these portraits belong to the nation, they are not on display at the National Portrait Gallery, but can be seen at Arundel Castle.

The Earl of Arundel's sculpture collection is now at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Collections of antiquities made by rulers and aristocrats had political as well as cultural significance. Earl Arundel infers here that possession of these objects links his family to ancient nobility. The sculpture did belong to him, but the setting was enhanced to impress Carleton in order that he might be persuaded to part with other antiquities that Arundel coveted, (these were eventually acquired by Rubens. (The intricacies of this story are revealed in Lord Arundel and his Circle by David Howarth Yale University Press New Haven and London 1985). We see him here portrayed by another of Arundel's 1636 travelling entourage; Wenceslaus Hollar. Rubens also painted Lord Arundel, in 1629, and it is interesting to see what he looks like eleven years after the Mytens portrait. The inclusion of portraits and sculpture within paintings act as symbolic credentials, in this instance transforming the Arundels into the Posh and Becks of their time.


Useful names and dates

Hans Holbein c.1465-1524
Albrecht Dürer 1471-1528
Inigo Jones 1573-1652
Sir Peter Paul Rubens 1577-1640
Daniel Mytens c.1590-before 1648
Wenceslaus Hollar 1607-77

Prime examples within the Gallery's collection using perspective

The table in:
NPG 665: The Somerset House Conference, 1604

The fireplace in:
NPG 2106: Maurice Greene; John Hoadly

The easel and painting in:
NPG 289: William Hogarth

The sea and the boat in:
NPG 1462: Arthur Philip

The amazing tunnel in:
NPG 89: Sir Marc Isambard Brunel

The paintings in:
NPG 792: Study for 'Patrons and Lovers of Art'

The whole environment in:
NPG 54: The House of Commons, 1833

The room in:
NPG 4882: Thomas Babington Macaulay

The room in:
NPG 6441: Sir Paul Brierley Smith

The parquet floor in:
NPG 1833: The Private View at the Royal Academy

Perspective: Seeing where you stand was devised by Liz Rideal and Christopher Stevens

Visit From Your Armchair

Self-portrait as My Father from the series Encounter  by Silvia Rosi © Silvia Rosi

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Margaret Thatcher by Spitting Images Productions Ltd painted plastic, 1985

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