Portraiture was the most important art form of the English court in the sixteenth century and examples survive in greater number than any other from that turbulent time. Caught up from the mid-century in its own Protestant reformation, the Tudor court tended to eschew purely devotional religious topics, preferring the solidity of political statements and the power expressed in portraiture. Thus, in the Walker Art Gallery’s “The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics” exhibition, we see that the close-up portrait of the Spymaster General Sir Francis Walsingham (unidentified artist, ca. 1585) has been painted over a Madonna and Child garden scene—far too Catholic.1 

To satisfy the public’s ever-growing interest in the Tudors, this exciting exhibition offers some of the most iconic portraits from the period. The exhibition starts with its earliest piece, a famous 1505 portrait of King Henry VII holding the red-and-white Tudor rose (each portrait mentioned is oil on panel by unidentified artists, unless stated otherwise). Next to him is a portrait of his wife, Elizabeth of York, clutching the white rose of her dynastic house in freakish fingers the size of garden rakes, in a late-sixteenth-century copy of an original from circa 1500. This royal combination immediately sets the scene in the exhibition for the usurper Tudor dynasty and for all the ensuing drama between 1485 and 1603. Portraits from circa 1520 of a young Henry VIII (before his monstrous personality had asserted itself) and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, follow. These portraits were likely intended to be shown as a pair, and numerous copies were disseminated for the same reason as later Tudor portrayals: to remind viewers of where authority lay.

King Henry VIII by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, ca1520, National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

A familiar example of this authoritative portraiture is the famous image of Henry in three-quarter view from circa 1537 after Hans Holbein the Younger (the original is lost). Recently identified as an original Tudor work, this portrait shows the bulky, imposing figure of a confident Henry after his revolutionary dissolution of the monasteries had asserted his practical power over the Church in England.

It was the deeply unattractive character of Henry that really set the ball—and heads—rolling. It is striking to realize that of the next five portraits, four of the subjects were executed—three beheaded on the block by Henry (Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell) and one burnt by Queen Mary (Archbishop Thomas Cranmer). The exhibition fails to point this out, missing the opportunity to neatly capture the brutal reality of Tudor politics. Another portrait in this section of the exhibition is of Jane Seymour, Henry’s favorite queen, who died delivering him his greatest wish—a son and heir. The portraits mentioned thus far, excepting Boleyn’s and the early Henry VIII, are after Hans Holbein. Despite the exhibition’s lacking the surviving originals of More and Cromwell (housed in the Frick Museum), the copies, dated from late Tudor to early Jacobean, are excellent.

Queens dominate much of the exhibition. In addition to those mentioned, we also have: the sad Mary in a smaller, intimate painting by Hans Eworth from 1554 (her future husband, King Philip II of Spain, thought depictions of her misleadingly flattering); the tragic Lady Jane Grey (late sixteenth century); and Mary Queen of Scots (after Nicholas Hilliard in 1578) holding a rosary with a Latin motto meaning “troubles on all sides.” These last two subjects also provided yet more employment for the axeman.

Of course, Elizabeth I outshines them all. Fantastically arrayed in dresses of staggering resplendence, Elizabeth signals with these portraits where the country can look for its source of wealth and power. She is represented in four paintings, including the important “Darnley” portrait of circa 1575, which was considered to have been painted from life and was favored by the queen herself. Even more striking is Nicholas Hilliard’s fabulously sumptuous “Pelican” portrait (ca. 1575), which takes iconography to a new level. Here the queen wears a jewel of a pelican plucking at its own breast for blood to feed her young, symbolizing the sacrifice that Elizabeth makes for her subjects. It is wonderful to see one of the “Armada” portraits of 1588, commissioned to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada that year, even if the one exhibited here is the least impressive of the three (chiefly on account of its having been truncated). Not everyone in Elizabeth’s audience was taken in by her glorifying and flattering portraits, with Catherine de’ Medici, queen consort of France, cattily declaring: “After what everyone tells me of her beauty . . . I must declare she did not have good painters.”

Paintings of note also on display depict Elizabeth’s favorite noblemen, the shifty and arrogant Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (ca. 1575), and Sir Francis Drake in a charming miniature (Nicholas Hilliard, 1581)—the only watercolor of the exhibition.

Jane Seymour, after Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1537, National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London, United Kingdom.

The curators—Kate O’Donoghue at National Museums Liverpool and Charlotte Bolland at the National Portrait Gallery—have sensibly arranged the exhibition in a clean, linear format following the chronology of the Tudor dynasty. This allows history to tell its narrative through portraiture, thereby informing the viewer of the all-important context of these highly political paintings. This may mean that viewers do not see so clearly the gradual, subtle evolution of portrait styles from the early Tudor period as it approaches the Stuart era and the minor distortions in later copies of earlier works. The decision, however, remains a sound one.

Of the twenty-five portraits on display, all but three are from the National Portrait Gallery in London, and two of the remaining are from Bath and Liverpool, the two cities where the exhibition could be seen. These are augmented by some interesting Tudor artifacts: the Bracton Altar Cloth, believed to have been made from the only surviving material from Elizabeth I’s wardrobe; some Tudor costumes and a famous piece of headwear (the Bristowe Hat); and, rather splendidly, some contemporary plans of the engagement with the Spanish Armada. But the most talked about item is the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511, a magnificent capturing of Tudor court spectacle. Many observers, encouraged by the exhibition’s promotional materials, have focused on the presence of the black trumpeter John Blanke (possibly named ironically)—the only identifiable black person of Tudor England. But this emphasis overlooks the fact that the Tournament Roll is ultimately a celebration of the birth of Henry VIII’s first son, the ill-fated Arthur, and that Blanke’s presence is incidental to the scene. A fixation on him is anachronistic, merely an indication of the racial obsessions of our own era.

This exhibition seen in Bath and now Liverpool admirably brings treasures from London to the provinces. Overall, it is an outstanding success.

  1.   “The Tudors: Passion, Power and Politics” opened at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom on May 21, 2022, and remains on view through August 29, 2022. The exhibition was previously on view at The Holburne Museum in Bath, United Kingdom, from January 28, 2022 through May 8, 2022.

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