King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

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    King Henry VIII; King Henry VII,    by Hans Holbein the Younger,    circa 1536-1537,    NPG 4027,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
A larger than life-size drawing of Henry VIII, the second Tudor king.
King Henry VIII; King Henry VII
by Hans Holbein the Younger
ink and watercolour, circa 1536-1537
101 1/2 in. x 54 in. (2578 mm x 1372 mm)
NPG 4027
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Henry VIII (1491–1547) came to the throne in 1509. He was the second Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). Monarch A person who rules a country, for example a king or a queen. , after his father King Henry VII.

Henry VIII Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. the artist Hans Holbein the Younger to create a huge Mural A large painting done directly onto a wall. of the royal family for the Palace of Whitehall in London. This portrait of Henry VIII, with his father Henry VII standing behind him, is one of the drawings Holbein used to help create the mural. 

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    King Henry VIII; King Henry VII,    by Hans Holbein the Younger,    circa 1536-1537,    NPG 4027,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
King Henry VIII; King Henry VII, by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1536-1537

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • Henry’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. is powerful, strong and authoritative. The padded shoulders and sleeves on his gown make him look extremely broad. His feet are wide apart and planted firmly on the ground.
    • Holbein made Henry’s legs longer and leaner than they were in real life. Pieces of the king’s armour from around this time prove his legs were shorter.
    • His hands are clenched. His left hand is positioned near his dagger, as if he is ready to use it. 
    • Henry’s father, Henry VII, can be seen behind Henry VIII. Although Henry VII was the founder of the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). Dynasty A series of leaders of a country who all belong to the same family. , he is shown standing behind his son who is the main focus of the portrait.
    • His Codpiece A piece of cloth, usually decorated, attached to a man’s lower clothing and covering his genitals. Worn in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. can be seen sticking out through his clothes. This was to show Henry’s pride and ambition to produce a line of male Heir A person who has the legal right to receive property, money or a title when another person dies. They are often that person's child. . But the Tudor dynasty only lasted one more generation.
    • He is wearing chains around his neck, made from gold and decorated with jewels.
    • His clothes and hat are also decorated with jewels, and he is wearing large, jewelled rings on his fingers.
    • His clothes would have been made of expensive materials such as velvet, silk and satin.
    • His dagger is highly decorated.
    • The portrait is very large. At over 2.5 m tall, it would reach the ceiling in an average house.
    • It would have been very expensive to Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. an artist to paint such a large portrait and it would need to hang in a very large room. The final Mural A large painting done directly onto a wall. hung in the king’s Palace of Whitehall in Westminster, one of the largest palaces in Europe.
He is the best-dressed sovereign in the world: his robes are the richest and most superb that can be imagined.
Sebastian Giustinian, 1519 

Who was King Henry VIII?

  • Henry VIII was king of Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   from 1509 until 1547. He was the second Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). king, after his father Henry VII. He became king at the age of 17.
  • He is often remembered for having six wives – and for having two of them executed.
  • He is also remembered for making himself the ‘supreme leader of the Church of England’. This meant he could divorce his first wife (Katherine of Aragon) and marry Anne Boleyn. He could also spend the Church’s money. The Church of England is still led by Britain’s king or queen today. Henry recognised the importance of a powerful Navy The part of a country’s armed forces that fights at sea, and the ships that it uses. to defend Tudor Britain, and to invade and fight in wars against other countries. Tudor Britain’s navy became ten times larger during his reign, and included his famous flagship, the Mary Rose.
  • The Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). made their first voyages to Africa during Henry’s reign. Just over 30 years later, John Hawkins and Francis Drake would make the first slaving voyages to West Africa, marking the beginning of Britain’s involvement in the horrific Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. .
  • Throughout his reign, Henry was desperate for male Heir A person who has the legal right to receive property, money or a title when another person dies. They are often that person's child. . His first son, also called Henry, died in 1511 just weeks after he was born. His second son, Edward, went on to become king at just nine years old. He died six years later.
  • Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth would go on to become one of Britain’s longest-reigning and most powerful Monarch A person who rules a country, for example a king or a queen. and was the last of the Tudors.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is probably the most important portrait of Henry VIII. This image ended up becoming the standard likeness of the king. It was used as the face pattern (a kind of template) by many different artists.
  • This is one of only two known portraits of Henry VIII by Holbein (who was employed as the ‘King’s Painter’) that survive today.
  • This portrait is a Preparatory A smaller task completed in order to prepare for something, such as a sketch. drawing that was used to help the artist create a huge painted Mural A large painting done directly onto a wall. of the Tudor Connected with the time when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled England (1485–1603). royal family.
  • The final mural also included his father King Henry VII, his mother Elizabeth of York, and his third wife Jane Seymour.
  • The drawing was used to help transfer Holbein’s design onto the palace wall. Chalk or charcoal was brushed through small holes made along the lines, transferring an outline to the wall for him to fill in with paint.
  • The final mural was destroyed in a fire in 1698. We only know what it might have looked like from this portrait and some copies made of the mural by an artist in 1667 for King Charles II. It is not known what happened to the section showing Jane Seymour and Elizabeth of York.
  • The mural is considered to be one of the greatest portraits of the Tudor period and it was Holbein’s most ambitious royal Commission A formal request made to an artist to create an artwork. .

Who was Hans Holbein the Younger?

  • Hans Holbein the Younger was an artist from Germany who was employed as the ‘King’s Painter’.
  • He was paid £30 per year. This was a high wage – about double the wage of a soldier at the time.
  • Holbein was a highly skilled artist, who knew how to Flatter To make somebody appear more attractive, more powerful or better than they are in reality. the king. This was important, not only to keep the king happy (he had recently had his wife Anne Boleyn executed), but also to help show that the king and Tudor Britain England and Wales from 1485 to 1603, when kings and queens from the Tudor family ruled.   were strong and powerful. Holbein was not only a painter. He had a broad range of artistic and design skills, but he is best remembered for creating realistic portraits.
  • Holbein made portraits of some of the most important figures in Henry VIII’s court, including Thomas Cromwell (his chief advisor) and Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour.
  • He created a unique and memorable image of Henry VIII that remains recognisable today as the definitive image of the king. 

Questions

  1. Try posing like Henry VIII. How does it make you feel?
  1. Why do you think Henry VIII wanted such a large painting of himself and his family?
  1. Who do you think had the most control over how this portrait looked, Henry or Holbein?