Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Real Tudors

Funeral Effigy of Henry VII
A new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London. To quote:
The aim of the new display, by contrast, is to consider how the monarchs would have been seen in their own time. Not simply by showing portraits from the NPG collection and beyond, but by applying to them the latest tools of scientific investigation: from dendrochronology and paint sampling to X-ray and infrared reflectographs.
The display, which features several portraits of all five Tudor monarchs chronologically, is the result of seven years’ research. And, for those of us fascinated by the turbulent, high-stakes, soap-operatic lives of the dynasty’s rulers, there’s plenty of interest.
For instance, the analysis of the “Darnley portrait” of Elizabeth I from 1575: an image of the queen in her forties, painted from life and the model for countless portraits during the rest of her reign. For years, we’ve considered it proof of her imperiousness: that look so haughty and remote, that dress a rather masculine doublet. The pallidly white cheeks just added to the sense of her remoteness.
Yet, analysis reveals, in fact, that originally there was considerable red pigment in them, which has simply faded over time – the ghostly coolness being a projection onto her, as it were, by subsequent generations. Her ostensibly pale complexion was actually rather rosy.

Elsewhere, Edward VI, who reigned and died tragically young, is captured in two strikingly similar paintings: one from 1546 when he was still prince and another from 1547 when he’d just – aged nine – become king. For those playing Spot the Difference, a necklace with Prince of Wales feathers insignia is replaced by a gold collar of the Order of the Garter.

Both portraits were based on Hans Holbein’s depiction of a puffed-up Henry VIII (Edward’s father) in the Whitehall Mural. Though, in the 1547 painting, the youth’s feet are much further apart than a year earlier, meant to suggest a broad, proud, kingly posture. Interestingly, X-ray analysis of the under-drawing indicates that the feet were originally wider apart still – before the painter checked himself and brought them slightly closer together, to ensure a more credible stance for a nine-year-old boy.

Holbein’s cartoon for the mural appears just across the gallery from the two Edward pictures, and it’s one of the joys of this display seeing so many iconic portraits in such close proximity.
Some things, alas, science can’t solve. Many of the painters remain unknown, for example; just as we've no idea how many portraits of Tudor monarchs were originally painted (it’s estimated, rather tentatively, around one in three survive). Among the more impressive survivals is the lifesize head from Henry VII’s funeral-procession effigy in 1509.

It was made by the Florentine artist in England, Pietro Torrigiano, using a plaster death-mask – then a highly innovative technique. The plaster allowed for a detailed characterisation and subtle modelling one just doesn’t expect from portrait sculpture at that time. Usually tucked away in the Westminster Abbey cloisters, the experience of seeing Henry VII like this is eerily uncanny.  (Read more.)

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