When I was younger, I used to do charcoal drawings, often copies of the 15th-16th century German artist Hans Holbein’s “medieval ladies,” as I called them. I loved to sketch the richly detailed dresses of Jane Seymour and Anna of Cleves in particular. I kindly gave them more appealing faces, of course (why is it people from the past always looked so effing ugly? Are humans becoming better looking or just better at making themselves look better?) and redesigned their dresses, too, until I eventually outgrew that activity. This is the only one I have left, as far as I know:
Over time, I discovered other portraits of Holbein’s that I found of particular interest, including one of the Lady Margaret Roper, favorite daughter of the martyred Thomas More. (The Lady Margaret Roper served as my avatar for the longest time in my earlier blogging days.) Sir Thomas More, by the way, refused to take the oath swearing loyalty to Henry VIII as leader of the church in England; thus, he lost his head—literally! His head was then placed on a pike and displayed publicly for a month before Margaret was allowed to purchase it. She pickled it in spices (I wonder which spices work best to preserve a severed head?) to keep it until her own death, when it was buried with her. (Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalized her in his poem, Dream of Fair Women, as the devoted daughter “who clasped in her last trance/ Her murdered father’s head.” Sigh.)
However, my favorite Holbein portrait might be the Unknown Lady with the Squirrel. Apparently, there is a bit of a mystery surrounding this portrait and the identity of the subject, a young woman holding a pet squirrel on a chain, although she is generally thought to be connected to the More family. (I love that weird-ass hat she’s wearing. I wish those would come back in style. If you’re familiar with the movie A Knight’s Tale, you might recognize it as the same hat the Lady Jocelyn is wearing the first time William sees her.)
Holbein became court painter to Henry VIII. After the death of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, Holbein was sent abroad to paint potential brides for the king. His portrait of the widowed Duchess of Milan, formerly Christina of Denmark, left the king “enraptured,” according to writer Antonia Fraser.
However, Holbein was still dispatched to the continent to paint a series of other prospective brides, five in all, for the king in 1538, because, I guess, one can never have too many paintings of prospective brides. Negotiations for marriage with Christina of Denmark came to nothing, but suddenly the German duchy of Cleves seemed like a good ally for Protestant England against the Catholic Hapsburg Empire. Therefore, Holbein was sent to paint the portrait of Anna of Cleves in 1539, and this portrait convinced Henry VIII to offer marriage to her.
When Anna of Cleves arrived in England, Henry found her appearance disappointing. (I don’t know about you, but I think Anna is way hotter than Christina of Denmark. I mean, what’s under all those baggy, shapeless robes of Christina’s anyway? She could be the Pope, for crying out effing loud. Anna is much more stylish, I’m thinking). A contemporary portrait of Anna, possibly done by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, does show a significantly longer and somewhat more bulbous nose than that depicted by Holbein (which is worse, a big beak or a big Pope-ish butt?). The king angrily blamed those around him for their “deception,” but according to Antonia Fraser, author of The Wives of Henry VIII, his anger was never directed at Holbein. However, Helen Langdon states that “Henry’s displeasure at finding Anne of Cleves more like a ‘fat flanders mare’ when she arrived for the marriage ceremony in January 1540 cost Holbein dear in prestige, and he received no further important work from this quarter.” The biography included at the WebMuseum indicates, though, that Holbein was in the process of painting another portrait of Henry VIII when he died of the plague in London in 1543, which would seem to support Fraser’s assertion that Henry didn’t hold Holbein responsible. At any rate, the king’s marriage to Anna lasted only a few months until he divorced her, which was better than the alternatives some other of Henry’s wives faced.
For years, every time I have toured the St. Louis Art Museum, I have made a point of dropping by the Early European Art to visit the Lady Guildford. Like all of the portraits of medieval ladies painted by Holbein that I have seen, she captured my interest the first time I ever saw her, before I knew anything about her or much at all about Holbein.
Sir Henry Guildford, once comptroller of the King’s household, and his wife Mary, Lady Guildford, were painted by Holbein in a complementary pair of portraits, both having the same blue background decorated with vines and the same curtain pole running across the top. Lady Guildford appears decidedly truculent in the portrait, her rounded face slightly puckered into a frown, thin lips tight. Langdon points out that the “grotesque head on the pillar” above her, with its rounded face and mouth shaped into an “O,” seems “to parody Lady Guildford herself”
There is another drawing by Holbein of Lady Guildford in black and colored chalk on white paper done in preparation for her portrait. In this drawing, Lady Guildford glances off to the side, lips curved in a slight smile. The pose seems less formal than that of the final work, the expression pleasant and even slightly whimsical. There is a bit of girlish attractiveness about this version of Lady Guildford.
I have read before, although I cannot recall where, that it is possible her husband disapproved of the less staid demeanor of this drawing and asked Holbein to represent her in a more sober fashion. If so, I wonder if the change dampened Holbein’s enthusiasm. The livelier original does seem to have inspired his imagination quite a bit more than the formal portrait that now hangs in the St. Louis Art Museum. Also, it seems to me if the portraits were placed side by side with the Lady Guildford to the right of her husband, so that they would be turned slightly toward each other, the “grotesque head on the pillar” with the mouth in the round, mocking “O,” its eyes directed to the left, would be looking directly at Sir Henry. This makes one wonder who is actually being mocked .
The Guildford portraits were separated nearly 400 years ago, so that today Sir Henry is displayed in the National Gallery in London and is part of the Royal Collection, while the Lady Mary Guildford belongs to the St. Louis Art Museum. Recently, however, from January 31 to April 27, 2003, the two were reunited for a special exhibit at the National Gallery in London. Presently, the Lady Guildford is back in her place in the Early European Art section in the St. Louis collection. It seems a shame for the three of them, Sir Henry, the Lady Guildford, and the ambiguous “grotesque head” not to be together all the time.
The portrait of the Lady Mary Guildford is not Holbein’s best work. That distinction would most likely go to his painting The Ambassadors, which, by the way, has some very strange imagery:
Still, I like those medieval ladies.
Hughes, Robert. “Clear Eye, Flawless Touch.” Time Archive. 20 June, 1983.
Kennedy, Maev. “Holbein Couple Meet After 300 Years.” Guardian. 16 Dec. 2002. Langdon, Helen. Holbein. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1976.
Linder, Douglas O. “More Trial Report.” 2007. Famous Trials. From A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceeding Upon Impeachments for High Treason, etc. London, 1719.
Pioch, Nicholas. “Holbein, Hans the Younger.” WebMuseum. Paris. 19 Sept. 2002.
Synge, M.B. “Margaret Roper (1501-1544)”. Great Englishwomen. The Baldwin Project. Lisa Ripperton. 2000-2007.