Today my friend’s daughter had to complete a school project on Tudor portraits. Music to my ears – nothing like a bit of Tudor espionage and beheading to get me interested. They’re my favourite royals and so I offered to help her out. But it made me think – I bet people don’t know what the Tudors really looked like.
The chances are that Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth 1st, Ray Winstone as Henry 8th or some BBC rendition with dodgy wigs features high in the mind. We are awash with likenesses, from the front cover of Phillippa Gregory’s Tudor fables to Lucy Worsley’s history programmes. And now we see Margot Robbie’s forthcoming Hollywood Elizabeth (a far cry from Wolf of Wall Street) …..let’s face it, we’re fascinated by the dynasty or they wouldn’t keep splurging money on actresses’ costumes.
Why are we so removed from original Tudor portraits? After all, the Tudors are the first court with any collection of portrait art to speak of (in fact portrait was the most important type of art of the Tudor court). Thanks to the Wars of the Roses, England had been in a cultural vacuum for a while so art just didn’t flourish.
Perhaps it is more important to ask why this 16th Century art is of particular significance? Why should we know our ‘Elizabeth’ by the House of Toledo to our ‘Henry 8th’ by Hans Holbein….and portraits of all six wives in between?
Well, the Tudors are seen as the first modern English court, and the first with a truly international sway – so no coincidence that it’s the first to make much non-religious art, instead directly displaying their power and might through painting. The collection tells us a lot – not only about the visual look of the people, but also the socio-political advances of the time.
Through these images, we see the dynasty’s ‘body politic’ (i.e. looking stately, and wearing ‘Sunday best’), showing the significant wealth, jewelled splendour, glory and physical presence of the characters. This is a royal family wielding sheer PR power – silks, pearls, jewels, and physical might (they were a tall family!), and they wanted the world – and their court visitors – to see it.
That the family were happy to make this type of iconography of themselves signifies the changing role of art and religion in 15th century England, and the global power of the English court. No longer just the preserve of altarpieces and religious observance in Catholic churches across England, art was now regularly made to portray these living people in this Protestant court. After all, the royals were seen as religiously ordained so artworks of them were acceptable as iconography.
These Tudor portraits also give us an idea of what the Royal family thought of themselves in the context of their European counterparts. Just as the ruling Medici family in Florence commissioned their own portraits, so was Henry. (Perhaps an example of the modern age of consumerism and Maslows hierarchy of needs was coming to the fore!)
It’s also worth remembering that not only was more art made than before, but previously art was more likely to be destroyed through accident or purpose (fire, crusades, religious defiance and more)… and at no time before have we had an amount of English art preserved – not burned, not ruined – for us to enjoy today. (Restoration excepted – some has been very poorly maintained and hence modern attribution and identification has often proven difficult).
Secondly, Tudor art signifies England’s growing prowess – due to our seafaring capability coupled with a series of well-placed international royal marriages, battle wins and alliances, we were gaining status as an international power to be reckoned with. This meant that ideas and influence, including artistic development, flowed in (and out) like no time before – the start of the modern age of information. Britain was lucky – being a very wealthy and seafaring court, and with easy travel from Italy and Ghent, Britain had growing exposure to Italian and Dutch artistic development.
This all influenced the role of the artist in 16th Century England. Court artists hadn’t been well known and were instead often seen as craftsmen. In a global context, they had stiff competition from some of the now-canonised European greats. Italy was in the full throes of the Renaissance where the role of artist has craftsman has long gone. Instead, now the role of the individual, ‘celebrity’ even, was growing (think Titian and Leonardo) and Northern Europe was in throes of artistic development (think Van Eyck, Robert Campin, Hans Holbein). But even so, English artists grew in name – such as Segar, Hilliard and Isaac Oliver.
The international power of Tudor court meant continental artists also wanted to work with the prestigious formidable court, both as resident artists (Holbein, Gheerearts the Younger) and visitors (Cornelisz, da Treviso, Gheerearts the Elder, Metsys). So many of the artworks that we associate with the Tudor England are made by Continental artists, some well known and others not known. This was game changing in itself – for example, Browne, the English-born ‘King’s painter’ (the highest office) was replaced by a continental artist Horenbout in the mid 1500’s.
Theres so much more to explore here – we’ve only just touched the surface, but we’ve seen the energy and melting pot of artistic fervour at the English Tudor court and some of the reasons why it is important. From Enamels to Cameos, canvases to illuminated manuscripts, the opulence at court grew. The artworks themselves are remarkable, but even more so what they represent for the court, the nation and for the canon of art history – and that’s why they’re worth exploring.