When Hans Holbein Came to Town

by Leanne Ogasawara

Holbein, 1536 or 37. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool


What are the chances that one of the greatest painters alive– a genius of portraiture, no less– would arrive at the court of the most infamous king in British history at the precise moment when the king began sending his royal wives to the chopping block?

Henry VIII. Even today, we can close our eyes and conjure up his dazzlingly rotund image. Those shapely legs in their white hose, adorned with courtly garter. And what about his perfect eyebrows and soft cheeks? The only reason we can do this conjuring is the skill of the painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who arrived in London just when all the fun started.

Holbein painted Henry so vividly. So evocatively. Facing straight on, legs set wide apart, his eyes are locked on the viewer. This is a vision of power. A lion about to pounce. In his puffed sleeves and doublet, the king is dripping in silk, gold, and gemstones. Holbein’s Henry is not just a portrait of the King but is an icon of power and excess.

And I’m sure I don’t need to point out the codpiece.

It was not just Henry whom Holbein painted either; for as Franny Moyle says in her wonderful Holbein biography, The King’s Painter, which came out earlier this year, every aristocratic Tom, Dick and Henry wanted a portrait painted by the great German artist. Read more »