Tudor family reunion

IAN COLLINS Meet the Tudors - the royal family from hell. Ian Collins is amused, amazed and appalled by the court of Henry VIII as painted by Hans Holbein.

IAN COLLINS

Family reunions are generally touching affairs - though in the case of the Tudors, and their fawning and fearful circle, that touch can be shockingly sharp. Indeed, it may even cut like an axe-man's blade.

This autumn's blockbuster art show in London is a Tate Britain survey of fabulously and fiendishly revealing pictures by Hans Holbein, court painter to Henry VIII.

At the heart of the 150-work display are the likenesses of Henry, Jane Seymour and their infant son Edward - a trio of portraits drawn from Madrid, Vienna and Washington and together again for the first time in centuries.

From an age when pictures had to tell a powerful story - since there were no photos, and most folk were unable to read - these portraits speak volumes.

Henry is perfectly hideous with tyrannical eyes, cruel mouth and vastness of bulk. The whole hulk has the air of accuracy, but the aim of the artist was clearly to impress with the ruthless might of monarchy.

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What's amazing in this reunited company is that Jane Seymour, the third wife who died giving birth to the longed-for male heir, appears just as ghastly as her husband.

She has the same meanness about the mouth, and a blank stare suggests the blind ambition of a woman ready and willing to ascend to royalty by stepping over the mutilated torso of Anne Boleyn.

The image of the richly-dressed infant who will become Edward VI is far more beautiful, but also unsettling in another way. The tot waves one hand in a gesture of divine benediction, and with the other he is about to bless us (or cosh us?) with his rattle.

At such a visitation it is very hard not to laugh. Then we remember the horror of what came next: struggling into teenage years when terminally sick, the young king unleashed a wave of smashing and burning across the land, targeting Roman Catholic images and individuals.

His half-sister Mary (unseen in this show) would follow with a similarly murderous assault on Protestantism. Both lethal weaklings - suffering from the sins of the father, with the madness of congenital syphilis part of the inheritance - left us with lessons they could never imagine.

German-born, and Swiss by adoption, the great Hans Holbein the Younger came to England in 1526, aged 29, under the patronage of Thomas More.

Portraits weren't too popular just then (the rich preferred to hang tapestries on their walls). And if his initial two-year stint was deemed a failure at the time, it also left us with a remarkable example of Norfolk foresight.

His famous Lady with a Squirrel and Starling, which went to the National Gallery from Houghton Hall in the 1990s, offsetting death duties of £10m, was an early commission. The identity of the sitter was long a mystery.

But thanks to stained-glass expert David J King, a former Cromer teacher, the nut-cracking squirrel has been connected to the animal in the Lovell family coat of arms. And the starling has been revealed as a visual pun on East Harling.

Thus the sitter is Anne Lovell whose husband, courtier Francis Lovell, inherited East Harling Hall from his uncle in 1524. The genuinely beguiling portrait was probably commissioned to celebrate the birth of their son and heir in 1528.

When Holbein returned to England as 'King's Painter', at the end of 1536, the world had changed. The break with Rome - as Henry wanted rid of Katherine of Aragon in a bid for a son with Anne Boleyn - rocked Christendom and ravaged the kingdom as the monasteries were sacked and the spoils divided at court.

Portraits suddenly had big currency as symbols of prestige. They were also necessary for diplomatic and marital purposes.

Soon after the family shots of Henry, Jane and Edward were complete, the king was searching for a new wife and chief courtier Thomas Cromwell was charged with the mission. Holbein was duly despatched to the continent to find winning likenesses of willing princesses. Or, as it turned out, unlikenesses…

He went to Brussels to depict Christina of Denmark, the Duchess of Milan. In the resulting portrait she wears a wry expression and long black clothes for, at 16, she was already a worldly-wise widow.

Henry fell for the picture immediately and vowed to marry Christina on the strength of a misconception. She - my heroine in this story - soon put him right. The woman, who would live until 1590, declared: “If I had two heads I would happily place one at the disposal of the King of England.”

The search then turned frantic, with the king of France mocking (in what would prove an unfortunate phrase) an exercise in “horse-trading”.

Holbein followed up promising verbal reports by painting a delightful picture of Anne of Cleves. The normally mercenary Henry said that if it hit the spot he would even marry her without a dowry.

The portrait did the trick and, in January 1540, Henry hastened to Rochester for his first meeting with his latest bride-to-be. He almost fainted. The exercise in horse-trading had landed him with a “Flemish mare”.

Lucky old, ugly old Anne. The marriage was never consummated. It was annulled on July 8. Cromwell was executed on July 28.

Holbein survived all these murderous intrigues, saved by his flexibility and talent. As the portraits prove - ditto the jewellery designs also in the Tate show - he loved the finer things in life, and he was determined to prosper.

He was an artist destined for a mansion - or better still a palace. Never a garret. (To savour the artist's love of finery, plus his grasp of the complexities of power, go to the National Gallery, where his masterpiece The Ambassadors is deemed too fragile to be moved.)

His wiliest work was a huge mural for Whitehall Palace, depicting Henry, his parents and Jane Seymour. It was lost to a fire in 1698, but a surviving cartoon shows that brilliant interplay of reality and distortion which was the hallmark of his genius. For Henry has the familiar piggy eyes and the pursed mouth. Plus the most enormous codpiece. Here, then, was the daddy of the nation.

Maybe Hans Holbein also had a special insight into the king's marital difficulties. For he kept one wife and family in Basle, and a second in London.

Having left us with a very powerful collective portrait of a monarch, his family, court and era, the painter was cut down in his prime, in London in 1543, by a deadlier foe than mad king Hal. He fell victim to the plague.

How ironic that, almost a century later, Sir Anthony Van Dyck - who depicted the splendid world of Charles I in the calm before a civil war storm - should also be levelled by the Black Death.

t Holbein in England at Tate Britain - telephone 020 7887 8888 or visit the website at www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/holbein/ - opens on September 28 and runs until January 7. Open 10am to 5.50pm daily. Admission £10, concessions £8. Tube: Pimlico.

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