Sunday, 16 January 2011

A Renaissance genius

As I do once in a while I have been gorging my senses on the Tate Britain 'Holbein in England' exhibition catalogue. My son gave me this a few years ago because I wanted to be able to visualise some of the kinds of people I'd encountered in my Early Modern history studies. Every time I turn its pages the images draw me deeper into trying to analyse the motivations and fears of Henry VIII's court.

In many ways the Tudors come across as a bunch of well-heeled crooks, the Corleone's of their day. Holbein actually looked into the eyes of their 'godfather', the magnificently sinister Henry who took on God, and actually thought he'd won when he eventually produced that elusive male heir (Edward died aged 15, probably from an illness worsened by his father's syphillis...). Holbein depicts Edward's mother, Jane Seymour, as a tight-lipped, prissy woman – what did she and Henry ever see in one another?

Holbein seems to have got beneath the skin of so many of his subjects, moving around at the heart of the 'machine', observing, flattering, painting them as they wanted to be seen, yet always through his skill revealing their own inner workings. Centuries later I turn the pages and see real, solid, mortal people with skin you want to touch, satins and velvets that rustle and fold, with wonderful eyes reflecting the life around them – the cruelty and inequality of Renaissance England.

Here are some of Holbein's gifts to our modern world – the plump and flirtatious-looking Lady Guildford; the dour businesslike faces of the Godsalves, father and son, with their amazing 'Pete Postlethwaite' features; Thomas More, sainted by some, just looks icily cunning to me; and here is the most beautiful Simon George in his blackwork embroidered shirt; truly touching are the darling baby sons of the Duke of Suffolk, Charles and Henry, who would, in their teens, die within an hour of one another from the 'sweating sickness' – influenza?

It is such a shame that, when this German born, adoptive 'denizen' of England himself died of plague in 1543 aged only 45, he could not know how much his vision would affect at least one lady in Suffolk four and a half centuries later.

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