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Tudor Portraits in the Archive

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Over one million photographs of portraits painted in Britain, and of British sitters, are stored in the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The project ‘Patrons and Picturemakers: 1485–1636’, which ran between 2019 and 2021 and was supported by the PMC, began a survey of these photographs, with the ambition of making the images and their associated data accessible and searchable. Dr Charlotte Bolland, National Portrait Gallery, and Dr Edward Town, Yale Center for British Art, describe how this project is leading to the rediscovery of forgotten painters and a re-evaluation of the canon of artists in Tudor England.

The faces of the Tudor dynasty are some of the most familiar from English history. The power of their portraiture has shaped the perception of these monarchs for centuries, from the threat embodied in Henry VIII’s imposing physicality; to the tragedy of Edward VI, frozen forever in his teenage years; the religious fundamentalism read into Mary I’s solemnity; and, finally, the multiplicity of Elizabeth I’s identities: potential wife, virgin queen, mother to the nation, empress and ultimately goddess. All these monarchs are brought together in an allegorical painting in the collection of National Museum Wales that celebrates the Protestant succession. This work exemplifies the challenge facing art historians, for while the sitters may be recognisable to generations born nearly half a millennium after the painting was made, the hand of the artist is harder to identify. It is obscured both by the condition of the work and the fact that the artist’s life likely slipped through the cracks of early art-historical interest, overlooked by the biographers who might have captured first- or secondhand accounts, as authors such as John Evelyn and George Vertue did for artists of the mid- to late seventeenth century. Vertue was certainly aware of the work of some important artistic figures in the Tudor and early Stuart period, such as Hans Holbein the Younger, John Bettes, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and Isaac Oliver, and, after unsuccessfully searching for an inscription to identify the artist who painted The Family of Henry VIII, wondered whether it might be in the ‘manner of Lucas de Heere’. However, by the time Vertue was writing, the memory of the lives and works of major artists such Hans Eworth, George Gower, Robert Peake the Elder and William Larkin had been totally lost. The result was a conception of the period that was not only limited but also heavily distorted, with no real sense of the lives of the artists who had shaped the aesthetic world of Tudor and early Stuart England.

Detail of an X-ray of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, oil on panel, 1580s-1590s. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 200). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London (all rights reserved).

It was only in the twentieth century that scholars such as Lionel Cust and Erna Auerbach began to draw some of these artists out from the shadows. Little by little, as archives were combed for payments and paintings scoured for signatures and inscriptions, the oeuvres of painters such as Hans Eworth came slowly into view. In recent years, surviving works have been subjected to ever more detailed scrutiny, using scientific analysis to uncover new information about the materials and techniques used in their construction, and to understand their condition. In both these methodologies the digital shift has been transformative, opening access to archival documents at an unprecedented scale and capturing increasingly sophisticated images that have provided previously imperceptible insights into the working methods of these painters. It has also facilitated collaboration across collections, building a more comprehensive and cohesive picture. However, the resource that can perhaps give the clearest sense of artistic production across the sixteenth century, and therefore the scope of the field, has remained relatively untapped at scale: the holdings of photographic archives, particularly the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). In the green, red and brown ‘sitter’, ‘artist’ and ‘costume’ boxes of the Public Study Room in the NPG’s Orange Street building, lie over a million images of portraits produced in Britain and of British sitters. It was these images that the ‘Patrons and Picturemakers’ project team sought to survey, going in search not only of paintings, but also the accumulated knowledge of provenance and attribution scribbled on the backs of the photographs by generations of scholars and curators.

What could the capture and analysis of such a dataset reveal about art in Tudor England? The ephemeral nature of much of court art, the deliberate destruction of images during the Reformation, and the risk of accidental damage or destruction over time through neglect, fire or flood, has long been thought to mean that today’s scholars are working to construct a picture of artistic practice from only a tiny fragment of works.

However, even at a preliminary stage, and with the project curtailed by the pandemic, it is evident that a far larger proportion of works survive than was previously feared. For decades, Roy Strong’s monograph The English Icon (1969), with its ordered presentation of approximately 350 works, has shaped the parameters of sixteenthcentury English art history. However, the project’s dataset, drawn from a survey of one third of the ‘sitter’ boxes in the Heinz Archive, and building on research in the Yale Center for British Art’s photographic archive, now stands at over 5,000 works dating from the Tudor and early Stuart period. Examining these images, working remotely at our transatlantic screens in 2020 and 2021 with the project’s Postdoctoral Research Associate, Dr Hannah Lee, trends began to emerge. For example, taking the number of extant paintings with inscribed dates as an index of productivity on behalf of painters in England, there was clearly a steady rise in demand for paintings, with a significant increase in the 1560s and 1570s, suggesting that the influx of skilled Netherlandish painters provided a fillip to the production of painting in England.

Hans Eworth, Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, 1569, oil on panel, 62.9 × 84.4 cm. Royal Collection Trust (RCIN 403446). Image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the data also indicated that there were both many more painters active than previously thought and that the oeuvres of the names well known to scholarship could be greatly expanded. It was in this direction that our thoughts turned as The Family of Henry VIII flashed up on our screens. Unlike many of the images that we looked at, the painting was familiar. It was acquired by National Museum Wales in 1991 through the acceptance in lieu scheme, and is on regular display at Sudeley Castle; a later version of the composition is held in the YCBA’s collection. It is attributed to Lucas de Heere, based upon Roy Strong’s comparison with later drawings made by de Heere when in France. However, saturated with images during our afternoon sessions trawling the dataset, the artist who first leapt to mind was instead Hans Eworth, who in 1569 had cast Queen Elizabeth in an allegorical retelling of the story of the Judgement of Paris. The paint handling has the hallmarks of Eworth’s approach to textiles, jewellery and flesh: the latter a readily recognisable combination of a peachy skin tone over a cool brown underpaint, creating a ‘turbid’ effect except on passages of the deepest brown, which were left exposed and formed the shadows of the flesh. The draughtsmanship involved in the composition of the details of the figures, for example in the hands, resonated with the images that we could readily recall of the small portrait of Mary I by Eworth in the NPG’s collection. However, our satisfaction at building a case for Eworth was quickly undercut when the review of the additional information from the Heinz Archive revealed that Lionel Cust had beaten us to it by a century. Moreover, squinting at our computers, it became clear that the artist himself had left us a note, which Vertue had not known to look for: both the inscription on the original frame and the single line at the base of the support, ‘THE QUENE TO WALSINGHAM THIS TABLET SENTE MARKE OF HER PEOPLES AND HER OWNE CONTENTE’, bear the ‘H.E.’ monogram which Eworth used to claim authorship of his work. A small crumb, perhaps, but with each clarification across the dataset, opportunities to deepen our understanding of artistic practice arise. Hans Eworth, we are sure, will not be the last artist to speak to us from the archive.

Detail Hans Eworth, Mary I, 1554, oil on panel, 21.6 × 16.9 cm. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 4861). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London (all rights reserved).
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