Friday, January 05, 2007

Art Review : Holbein in England (Tate Britain 5/01/07)

To all intents and purposes, English Art began with Holbein. What preceded him may not have been without merit, but the names of the artists are seldom recorded. The renaissance of painting in Italy and Northern Europe had left these shores surprisingly untouched. And neither did Holbein kickstart British Art - with the exception of the sublime Nicolas Hilliard, there is scarcely an English-born painter of note until Hogarth in the 18th Century.

Holbein was born in Augsburg in 1497/8, the son of a talented portraitist, but developed his art in Basel where he had moved in 1515. He first travelled to England in 1526, where he stayed for two years. He returned to Basel, but was driven out by religious unrest in 1531, and came back to England where he stayed until his death in 1543.

Holbein's reputation today is largely based on his portraiture, for which he was firmly-bedded within the Northern European tradition. His archetypes were Jan van Eyck and Memling, his peers Durer, Cranach and Matsys. He shares with them the ability to capture an uncanny likeness in oils - he is less a caricaturist than Cranach or Matsys, his goal is a perfectly idealised likeness for his patrons.

His portrait of Henry VIII c1537 is iconic. Henry's high forehead and narrow eyes indicate intelligence and cunning, his tight-set lips denote determination and Henry's broad frame and thick neck radiate power. He looks every inch the Renaissance monarch. The head doesn't quite fit the body. It was probably the result of a single preparatory sketch - Henry was not a good sitter, which makes the final result all the more remarkable.

Yet the paintings of the monarch and his spouses do not show Holbein at his best - they are too formal, too constrained by the ever-present threat of Henry's ire. The portrait of Sir Richard Southwell, however, describes a very real person. Southwell was one of Cromwell's functionaries involved in the administration of the proceeds from the dissolution of the monasteries - the silken sheen of his coat suggests that his was a lucrative position. Southwell's face, however, is recognisable as that of a distinct personality. The eyes are somewhat dead, but beneath the broad nose is a lively, expressive mouth surrounded by a stubbly, dimpled, slightly receding chin. His neck is disfigured by tubercular marks. This is not an engaging or flattering portrait - but one cannot help feeling that it is uncannily true to life.

Contrast this with the portrait of the elderly Dr John Chambers, aged (according to the portrait) 88. Holbein has somehow managed to capture the texture of his aged flesh: it is dry and papery, its youthful sheen gone. His eyes are looking towards a final goal, his mouth set and resigned. It is a wonderful depiction of ageing, and the contemplation of death.

This is a compendious exhibition, displaying not only the well-known portraits by Holbein, but also many of his preparatory sketches, and also the portraits by his school. It is a pity that the catalogue is light on background and heavy on somewhat arid detail, as the exhibition itself manages to be consistently illuminating and fascinating about someone of whom the available documentary evidence is limited. It is unlikely that such a collection of Holbein's works will be seen together again (The Ambassadors is too frail to travel across London), so enjoy it - if it is not too late - while you can.

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