The man stares out with the eyes of a dead fish.  He looks cold, ruthless and predatory.  His fur collar, expensive robes and chain of office speak of ambition and power.  This is a man who condemned to death his own niece and destroyed a rival whom he passionately hated, not just for having different religious beliefs but because the rival had risen to high office through sheer talent and not through aristocratic birth.  You are looking at a photograph of the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard.  The photographer is a penetrating psychologist.  He’s German and he took the photograph in 1539.

So it’s not a photograph, it’s a painting done by a genius who could draw and paint photographically as well as psychologically.  His name was Hans Holbein.  And, as Franny Moyle tells us in the title of a wonderful new book, he was the King’s Painter, a man who has left us a record of the court of Henry VIII.


And Holbein shows us who these many people were – really were inside.  He also paints several portraits of Norfolk’s hated rival, Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell is dressed in black with the minimum level of ostentation expected from his position.  But he was no angel.  As Moyle says, at least one of the pictures is a study in meanness.  And intelligence.  This is Henry VIII’s no-nonsense hatchet man.  His small eyes are reading you.  Get in his way and you’re dead.  Little wonder that he was prepared to be the cultural vandal who bulldozed stunningly beautiful monasteries to line the king’s pockets.  The man too who concocted charges of treasonous sexual relations with Queen Anne Boleyn against probably innocent men in order to bring down a woman he perceived as a threat to his own survival.   The men were all executed and Cromwell was among the spectators when it was Anne’s turn.  In her destruction he came together with his adversary the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle, who presided at her trial.

The wives of Henry VIII

Did Holbein paint Anne herself?  Moyle thinks he must have done but the portrait was probably destroyed along with everything else when Henry tried to airbrush her from history after her fall.  The same goes for wife number five, Catherine Howard who also died on the scaffold.  There’s a picture of an attractive young woman (seventeen – Henry was forty-nine) which may be a copy of a Holbein original.

Holbein painted the king’s third wife, Jane Seymour, too and not particularly sympathetically.  She’s far from attractive, her lips are tightly shut (to Henry’s delight after the outspoken Anne Boleyn) and Holbein has added an extra strip of paper to his portrait so he can particularly paint her hands.  Each one is under the thumb of the other.  That may be code for Jane being under Henry’s thumb.  That said, she was no innocent and, spurred on by her calculatingly ambitious family, she had played a clever game to get Henry and then become queen.  So could it just be that each royal partner was under the thumb of the other?

Clues that Henry missed?

The portrait with the biggest story behind it, though, is that of the fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.  Sent by Henry to Germany to paint her in order to assess her attractiveness, Holbein captures her image face on.  But it’s a face without expression and the face-on position may be suggesting lack of depth.  As often with Holbein, there’s an ambiguity here.  He may be saying she’s serene but he may equally be saying she’s dull.  You had to be careful telling Henry VIII things too baldly.  Holbein may have added an extra clue also.  This is not in Franny Moyle’s book but the skirt of Anne’s heavy German attire has two vertical gold strips.  They’re asymmetric, however, with one in the middle, one on the right.  Where’s the one on the left?  There’s just a gap on the left but not on the right.  Put that last sentence in French and you have ‘à gauche, pas à droite’.  But ‘gauche’ also means awkward or clumsy and ‘pas adroite’ means not clever, skilful or experienced.  This could have been a message for Henry, given the age’s fascination for finding hidden meanings in artworks.  If so, the king, who didn’t like disappointment, missed all the clues and thought Anne was lovely.  Until he saw her in person in England, by which time it was too late and he had to marry her.  The architect behind the whole idea of the marriage was Cromwell and Henry’s fury at his predicament was a contributing factor to Cromwell’s execution not long afterwards.

An inadequate tyrant

What of Holbein’s portraits of Henry himself?  Well, the image you have in your mind of Henry VIII was put there by Holbein.  His are the definitive pictures.  The monumentally detailed works show a colossus of a man.  Henry was six foot two which was enormous in those days.  It has been said that to stand in front of a full-size Holbein painting of him is to have you quaking in your shoes, so intimidating is the image of this prince.  But again look closer and is everything as it seems?  Henry has cruel piggy eyes and a small, tight little mouth, all set in the middle of a huge bloated, slab-sided, bearded face.  For all the finery he wears this is also a portrait of self-indulgence, of a man trying to inhabit the magnificence of his clothes and his powerful image.


Now contrast this man with the painting of another man.  He’s the French ambassador to England, Charles de Solier.  A former soldier, he is, in the words of Franny Moyle, ‘a hugely robust figure, striking looking with a strong, handsome face and a beard streaked with grey in distinct and distinguished stripes’.  It is a ‘characterization of fearlessness’.  De Solier’s eyes look into yours, ‘firm and unmoving’.  And I think there’s a kindness in those eyes too.  The ambassador has the same pose as Henry VIII but the difference between them is vast.  Moyle thinks there’s little doubt that the De Solier portrait was a prototype for the series of portraits of the king of England.  But I wonder if Holbein isn’t also saying to anyone who compares the two figures, ‘one of these is the picture of a real man’.

Portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man

Lastly, there’s a picture of Holbein himself, a self-portrait drawn a few months before his death at about forty-six.  It’s a surprisingly aggressive face.  This guy is tough.  But then again his driving ambition had propelled him, in a dangerous world, to be the most celebrated painter in Europe and he knew he what a talent he had.  As a boy he had done what nobody did – signed his own paintings.  And as a man he had once thrown a bumptious earl down the stairs of his workshop.  The gaze fixing you is piercing, slightly quizzical and all-seeing.

Photography in the sixteenth century

Henry VIII, to his credit, did have a high estimation of Holbein and paid him well but not to the level he deserved.  Genius, as history tells us again and again, is often not rewarded.  But some did recognize it at the time.  Holbein’s photographic realism was new and startled people more than we can quite grasp now.  David Hockney thinks Holbein was using a Camera Obscura to create a photographic image that could then be traced round.  Art historians generally disagree but I suspect Hockney is right.  You almost expect Holbein’s subjects to blink or turn and talk to you.  Their costumes are old, their faces are modern.  You could see these people on the tube.

Psychology before Freud

Every detail of these individuals is recorded minutely and, through those details, their characters.  There’s the depiction of wisdom, kindness, cruelty, arrogance, ruthlessness, beauty, suffering, entitlement, humour, shrewdness, strength, duplicity, vacuousness and on and on.

Long before Freud there were those who had an extraordinary understanding of the human mind and could penetrate to and capture the essence of  a person.  Some, like Shakespeare, did it in words.  Holbein did it in images.  This is why he is great.  Not only could he draw and paint with utter realism but he could also tell you in a picture what someone’s personality and character were.  He didn’t flatter, he recorded what he saw when he turned that laser stare and concentration onto a sitter.


Small wonder that Franny Moyle ends her book by quoting a friend of Holbein’s looking back emotionally on the artist’s staggering achievements.  Nicholas Bourbon’s tribute ends with these words:

‘Then a voice said:

‘’No human hand has ever wrought,

With brush and colour, such great and rare achievement’’.

They could do nothing.

That statement was false.

God had done the work.

God alone achieved such deeds.’




** Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, it has not been possible to include in this blog some of the portraits that would have made this an easier and more vivid read.  But do have a look at Holbein for yourself.