The Nachleben of Holbein
Last week saw me at Windsor, to see the exhibition to celebrate the quincentenary of the accession of the tyrant, Henry VIII. If one undertook the trip and paid the entry fee to the Castle just to see this small exhibition, and did not stay to stand in awe within the splendour of St George’s Chapel, or to marvel at the quality of paintings amassed in the royal apartments, one would be disappointed. There are no revelations or new insights into the career of the second Tudor, and, in several instances, original works by Holbein are substituted by later prints or copies. That, in itself, though, set me thinking.
For someone more familiar with the tale of the late recognition in England of the artistry of the ‘Italian primitives’, what struck me was the recurrent high regard in which the German father of English portraiture, Hans Holbein, has been held. ‘Recurrent’ is probably a better term than ‘continuing’ would be: the fortunes of the ‘great book’ of Holbein’s drawings suggest a disrupted journey. In royal hands in the mid-sixteenth century, it was in the collection of Lord Lumley by the 1580s. On his death, it passed to Henry, Prince of Wales, the ill-starred son of the first Stuart. It thus returned into royal ownership, only to be given away by Henry’s younger brother, Charles I. In the late 1620s, he was willing to part with it, in return for a ‘little St George’, which happened to be by Raphael. The fact that the king parted with a whole set of Holbein drawings for this one small image — now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — perhaps helps us calibrate the distance in standing between the two artists, in the eye, at least, of one distinguished collector.
But the Holbein book was hardly thrown into the outer darkness: it passed into the hands of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, himself a respected and fashion-leading connoisseur. After the Restoration, the drawings were, as it were, repatriated, becoming part of the collection of Charles II. Even then, though, its adventures were not over for, it is said, in the early eighteenth century, it lay discarded until ‘re-found’ in 1727 in Kensington Palace. My suspicious mind does wonder whether this last episode may be one of those myths of loss which can accrue to objects later considered precious and which actually come to form part of their mystique. The claim of underrating can, on occasion, be used to justify a change in the status of the object and that certainly happened in this case: the book was dismantled and, under the guidance of George Vertue, the individual drawings mounted and displayed.
In 1675, it was said that ‘the book has long been a wanderer’ but perhaps its very travels helped it gain a reputation for its artist. The drawings are apparently mentioned in art treatises from c. 1630, soon after it had reach Arundel’s collection. And, certainly, the display presently at Windsor demonstrates that Holbein’s images were considered worthy of copying in the seventeenth century: for example, Robert White produced an engraving of Katherine of Aragon, inscribing it with the words ‘H. Holbein pinxit’. The stimulus to reproduction may, in part, have been the identity of the sitter, but the inscription also suggests that Hoblein’s name was considered known or worthy to be known.
Indeed, Holbein’s reputation could, at times, be a source of misattribution. George Vertue, whom we have already mentioned, painted a portrait of Edward VI in 1745, with the frame stating in gold letters ‘after Hans Holbein 1545’. The original, on display upstairs in Windsor (and on-line), is, in fact, no longer considered to be by Holbein; its present designation is either ‘Flemish School’ or ‘William Scrots’. In other words, the standing in which Hoblein came to be held left some of his contemporaries in the shadows.
What is the moral of this tale? Perhaps it is this: we may tend, at times, to imagine that our own tastes reflect those of our forefathers and assume that the celebration of Holbein in the Windsor exhibition and in earlier ones, like that at the National Portrait Gallery in 1994 (from which I have taken some of the information above) or the ‘Dynasties’ show at the Tate the following year, is the latest stage in unbroken interest, dating back to the artist’s own lifetime. When we begin to realise that this is not quite so, we are liable to replace that ahistorical view with a narrative of the ‘re-discovery’ of the ‘Renaissance’, in which there is a path — not always easy but definitely visible — from forgetfulness to remembrance. But the information we have suggests something less linear and more interesting: a pattern of knowledge and ignorance across and within generations. The vagaries of attention shift back and forth and can only with injustice to the subject be simplified into a ‘direction’. And, indeed, moments of low regard, as might be imputed to Charles I’s giving away of the ‘great book’, could actually spur others to a better appreciation.