Lot Essay This finely rendered portrait of the young Henry VIII is the earliest recorded portrait type of the King, predating the famous Holbein pattern by nearly twenty years. A remarkable survival from the early-sixteenth century, the present picture is likely to have been painted when Henry VIII was twenty-eight years old. It relates closely to another portrait of the monarch in a private collection, dated by dendrological tests to circa 1519. It is possible that the two may have been painted by the same hand.
Henry VIII stands as one of the most influential and important monarchs of England. After the death of his elder brother Arthur in 1502, he had become Prince of Wales, and ascended to the throne a year later on 21st April 1509. An accomplished, educated man, Henry’s reign was one of crucial transition between the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern period, overseeing the creation of the Church of England, the legal union between England and Wales as well as significant cultural and artistic developments and achievements. Perhaps more than any British monarch had done before, Henry VIII used portraiture and personal imagery as a means to affirm this position, demonstrate his wealth and power, and define and control perceptions of his person and kingship both within Britain and across Europe. Henry used court painters to regulate and form distinctly recognisable portrait types of himself, complementing his political and cultural agendas.
The most enduring of these types were produced by Hans Holbein the Younger and his workshop and were principally based on a now lost 1536-1537 mural at the Whitehall Palace in London. Showing Henry in later life, these pictures were carefully constructed to boost the king’s power and majesty, from the frontal pose and imposing stance to the lavishly decorated and padded costume. While Holbein’s examples have become perhaps the defining image of Henry, earlier artists produced images of the king which were likewise designed to represent him within a certain light and to enrich his public image. The present portrait, one of a series of similar likenesses of Henry (discussed below), was painted roughly ten years into his reign, presenting him as a handsome, cultured man, dressed in luxurious clothes against a green cloth-of-honour, probably original embellished with gold. Henry actively cultivated the image of himself as a courtly polymath, inspired by prevalent Humanist ideals which encouraged ideas of an unlimited capacity for development and learning.
Sir Roy Strong, in his 1969 survey of the King’s iconography, recorded the present portrait and dated it to circa 1520 and listed two other versions: one in the National Portrait Gallery, London and one turned to the left, at Anglesey Abbey, (Strong, op. cit., p. 158). A third is known in a private collection, previously sold at Christie’s, London, 2 July 1892, lot 80. Henry VIII did not grow a beard until 1519 (on hearing that his great rival, Francis I of France wore one). He then alternated between a short trimmed beard (as shown in the present picture), a fuller beard (as he appears in the Holbein type) and at times none at all.
Dr. J.M. Fletcher suggested a link between some of the pictures discussed above and a portrait of Henry VII at the Society of Antiquaries of London (‘A group of English royal portraits painted soon after 1513: a dendrochronological study’, Studies in Conservation, 1976, pp. 171-8). Ian Tyres has subsequently undertaken dendrochronological testing on the portrait of Henry VIII discussed above in a private collection, which revealed a likely usage date of 1502 to circa 1518 for that panel (private correspondence) and therefore it is likely it was painted circa 1519. The delineation and delicate modelling of the features of that portrait is extremely close to the handling of the face in the present picture suggesting that these paintings may have been executed by the same artist.
The brooch worn in the King’s hat is of a particular type known as an enseigne, a French term widely used in European courtly circles of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The jewellery historian Yvonne Hackenbroch described the enseigne as an ‘emblem of faith and destinction … the most characteristic masculine adornment of the early Renaissance period’ (Hackenbroch, Enseignes: Renaissance Hat Jewels, London, 1996). Hackenborch argues that after Henry broke with Rome in 1533, becoming Supreme Head of the Church of England, he ‘rejected’ enseignes. ‘He felt disinclined to wear the same type of personal adornment as Catholic rulers on the Continent, preferring to display the magnificence of Tudor courtship’. It is true that, although references to such brooches abound in the Royal inventories, they are rarely worn by sitters in later portraits; in Henry’s own portraits by Holbein and other artists he is frequently shown wearing a jewelled hat brooch, but never again a figurative one. In the present work, however, Henry is still a Roman Catholic monarch, and the enseigne is a subtle allusion both to his awareness of Continental courtly tastes and, above all, to his piety.
There appears to be a crowned rose in present picture on Henry’s right, which may be the Tudor rose that Henry VII initiated as a heraldic emblem after ending the ‘Wars of the Roses’. Around his neck, Henry wears a gold and pearl jewel, with a heart at its centre, a symbol often embroidered into his clothes and a reference to his motto ‘Coeur Loyal’ (‘true heart’).