During our recent trip to London, we visited the National Portrait Gallery which has late night opening on a Thursday. I’d never really fancied looking around the gallery in the past as I thought it was full of stuffy portraits of establishment figures. But when we were in London last September we called in on impulse for an hour on the Thursday evening as we were passing and saw that it was open. We found that enjoyed it, so wanted to go back for a proper look. It certainly had plenty of “stuffy” portraits of establishment figures, but I really enjoyed looking at the Tudor period paintings, pictures of some ‘heroes’ from the Georgian period (Shelley, John Dalton, William Blake, William Godwin, Mary Wolstonecraft etc) and also the more modern portraits from the 1930’s and after WW 2.
I found the Tudor Gallery on the top floor particularly fascinating. The style of painting is quite different from those from later periods. The colours used for many of the paintings were much more vibrant than the dark, sombre tones used for most of the portraits painted through the Stuart period up to the 20th Century. There was extensive use of blue. Until the development of artificial pigments after the industrial revolution, good strong blue pigments, such as lapis lazuli derived from a ground up semi-precious stone, were very expensive. Although, we did notice that blue featured particularly on the portraits of members of the Royal family.
The detail in some of the paintings, such as on the dress in this portrait of a mature Elizabeth 1, was exceptional
Queen Elizabeth 1 by an unknown Netherlandish artist
circa 1575 (Picture source National Portrait Gallery )
In some cases the paintings were rather “flat”, as in the following portrait of Elizabeth’s at her coronation, which was actually painted quite a few years after the event
Elizabeth I in coronation robes by an unknown English artist, circa 1600 (Picture source: Wikipedia)
Queen Mary I by Master John, 1544 (Picture source: Wikipedia)
Catherine Parr, attributed to Master John, circa 1545 (Picture source: National Portrait Gallery)
King Edward VI by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1547 (Picture source ; National Portrait Gallery)
There were some more sombre portraits, such as these of Elizabeth 1’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.
Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John De Critz the Elder, circa 1585 (Picture source:Wikipedia)
and Thomas Cromwell.
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534). (Picture source: Wikipedia)
I was particularly interested to see the Cromwell portrait having read Hilary Mantel’s novel based on his life, “Wolf Hall”, which mentions Holbein’s painting. In the novel Mantel has Cromwell looking at the portrait and commenting "I look like a murderer". He certainly has a very grim, almost devious, expression.
I thought that the paintings on display were in remarkable condition given their age. The National Portrait Gallery are clearly very good at their job in preserving delicate works of art.
Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery also have a good collection of Tudor era paintings, including these two
Very few portraits were produced in England before 1500 but portraiture became increasingly popular during the sixteenth century. The first commissions were mainly portraits of royalty, and often the exchange of portraits played a key role in marriage negotiations between courts.
That portraits can be misleading is shown by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves (his third wife). He, so the story goes, made his decision to marry her having seen a flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, only to be disappointed (to put it mildly) when he saw her “in the flesh”. Thomas Cromwell’s role in arranging the marriage contributed to his downfall. However, I think that there is a lot more to it than that in a period when a monarch’s marriage was principally driven by political alliances and the desire to produce a male heir.
She goes on to say
Portraiture was then adopted by courtiers as a means of displaying status and power through the display of their costly dress, jewellery, coats of arms and symbols of office. From the 1540s portraiture spread beyond the court and came to be commissioned by merchants and citizens.
The Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe meant that there was a reduction in demand for religious paintings, so there were a large number of artists available who were probably only too glad to receive commissions to produce the portraits. It also presented an opportunity for artists from overseas such as Hans Holbein the Younger, who came to England. Given some of the impressive works they produced, this shows how immigrants can make a very positive contribution to British culture.