Holbein – Master of Portrait Drawing

Anne Cresacre, Sir Thomas More’s daughter-in-law, 1527

Christina here. I have to admit I’ve never been a fan of modern art. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like to see exactly what a painting depicts, the more life-like, the better as far as I’m concerned. I am in complete awe of artists who manage to capture a face, view or object precisely, to the point where you feel it is almost real. Like a photo, but drawn or painted. That, to me, shows incredible skill, most especially when capturing a person’s likeness in a portrait.

Most artists start their compositions with a sketch or drawing, perhaps later to be worked into a painting in oil on canvas. And although oil portraits can be amazing, drawings in pencil or chalk seem more intimate and often really render the sitter’s features exactly. In my humble opinion, no one was better at this than Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543), portrait painter at the Tudor court of Henry VIII in the 16th century.

Sir Henry Guildford, Comptroller of the Household, 1527

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to go and see an exhibition of his work at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London (Holbein at the Tudor Court). There are a lot of his drawings in the Royal Collection, including the majority of the portrait drawings that survive from his time in England. These were probably bought by Henry VIII after Holbein’s death and were later sold several times, but eventually purchased sometime during the 17th century by Charles II. Although they are now nearly 500 years old, they are still in amazing condition, and this exhibition showcased the very best of them.


Sir Thomas More, 1527

Hans Holbein was part of a family of artists from Augsburg in Germany. As an adult, he first settled in Basel, Switzerland, with his younger brother Ambrosius. They specialised in religious paintings, but the demand for those declined sharply during the mid-1520s when there was a lot of religious reform happening. Holbein therefore decided to seek his luck in England and travelled there in 1526. To help establish himself, he brought with him a letter of reference from Erasmus of Rotterdam (humanist and philosopher), who regularly corresponded with Sir Thomas More, the famous lawyer and writer. More became his first patron in England, and mentioned in a letter that he was very pleased with Holbein’s work. There were drawings of More’s entire family (preparatory sketches for a group portrait), including More himself, his father, two daughters, son and daughter-in-law. All of them are superb!

Henry VIII was known to employ lots of artists from all over Europe as he was keen to show his power and the glory of the Tudor dynasty. Holbein became one of the most successful ones at Henry’s court, and painted all manner of important nobles and courtiers, as well as the royal family. His success can largely be attributed to his incredible skill at drawing lifelike portraits. One inscription claims his paintings “only needed a voice to appear alive”. I totally agree!

Mary Shelton, later Lady Heveningham, c.1543

The exhibition focused mainly on the preparatory drawings he made before turning them into oil paintings (many of which have not survived so we’re lucky to have the drawings) or miniatures. In order to transfer the image to a panel (made of wood), the artist pricked holes in it with a pin along the lines of the drawing. There would be a second sheet of paper underneath the top one, and chalk dust could be rubbed through the holes to show the outline, which was then used as a basis for the painting. Where the finished paintings were hung next to the drawings in the exhibition, I felt the latter were far better and really brought the person to life. Most are done in black and coloured chalk and black or brown ink, sometimes with the addition of a little bit of watercolour. Many were drawn on paper that had been prepared with a pink wash to help depict the flesh colour of the person’s face.

Holbein initially only stayed in England for two years, as he had left his wife and children in Basel. However, in 1532 he returned to England and stayed there until his death. His reputation spread rapidly, probably through word of mouth, and he was in great demand. Having your portrait painted by Holbein was a statement, showing your status and importance. They could be commissioned in order to commemorate various events, like births and marriages, or just to show off.

Henry VIII, unknown artist after Holbein

Holbein is, of course, most famous for the impressive portrait he painted of King Henry VIII in 1537. The original was a mural, painted directly onto the wall of the Privy Chamber in Whitehall Palance, and it was destroyed in a fire in 1698. However, there were numerous copies made, and one can see why it made such a huge impression on people. The king is shown looking extremely confident and powerful (not just because he was a big man), and I’m sure it must have intimidated quite a few courtiers. It was said to be so lifelike that some people were shocked.

There were also portraits of other members of the royal family, most notably three (or possibly four) of Henry’s wives – Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. The drawing said to be of Anne Boleyn has been disputed, as it shows a woman with fair hair and she was a brunette. However, it could be that the chalk colour has been rubbed off at some point and it was originally darker to match the brown eyes. If it is Anne, it’s one of very few surviving portraits of her. The one of Jane Seymour, in contrast, is undisputedly her.

Anne Boleyn?, c.1532-36
Jane Seymour, 1537









Unidentified Man, c.1537

This drawing of an unidentified man shows Holbein’s amazing skill at capturing detail – just look at how he’s depicted the man’s beard. Looking at it, you can almost feel the rough texture of the bushy hair.






Elizabeth, Lady Vaux, c.1535

Another thing I particularly like about Holbein’s drawings is that they truly show the sitter’s character, as well as being incredible likenesses. This depiction of Lady Vaux is different from most of the other ladies in that her expression is slightly playful, with those beautiful blue eyes drawing you in. It’s as if she is on the verge of laughing about something, but she’s trying to stay serious while sitting for the artist.




George Brooke, 9th Baron Cobham, c.1538/9

Lord Cobham is truly imposing in this drawing, power practically radiating from him. And again, the beard is rendered so well, you can see each individual hair. He was Deputy of the English-controlled town of Calais from 1544 and was said to have both diplomatic charm and military expertise. He certainly looks powerful.





Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, c.1535/6

I also loved this drawing of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey – his unflattering pudding bowl haircut has been depicted strand by strand in the most amazing way. He was apparently very impetuous and bold, and was later arrested and executed for treason in 1547.

Hans Holbein died sometime in October or November of 1543, but the legacy of incredible drawings and other artwork he left behind has ensured that he’s definitely not forgotten.

What do you think – are you a fan of modern art or do you, like me, prefer to see paintings that are true to life?

Henry VIII – Cause for Celebration?

Henry VIIINicola here. Today is the 510th anniversary of the coronation of Henry VIII. Despite my very mixed feelings about Henry and his Dad, it feels like the sort of occasion I can’t ignore, particularly as my next timeslip is set in the Tudor period, albeit later in the reign of Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth. A decade ago, when it was the quincentenary of Henry's coronation, there were a number of celebrations to mark the occasion. But is Henry someone who we want to celebrate?

Henry VIII bestrides English history like a colossus both in terms of physical size and reputation. Not many kings or queens can compete with his fame. Was this solely down to the fact that he had six wives and beheaded two of them? A number of other British monarchs have had more than one spouse but none of them make the headlines (sorry, bad pun) like Henry still does. As someone who enjoys exploring the myths and legends about historical characters as much as I enjoy the “real” history, I thought I’d take a look at “Why is Henry VIII still so big” (in the sense of popular culture.) I call it “the afterlife” of Henry VIII.

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Tudor Passions

Wolf hallNicola here, talking about the Tudors. A few days ago I read an article about the huge number of historical fiction books set in the Tudor period. The author was suggesting that it was time to move away from the wives of Henry VIII and choose some different historical periods and characters to write about. Even Hilary Mantel, with her Booker Prize winning Tudor set novels is saying that we have reached “Tudor peak” and that the market is saturated.

As someone whose next book is a dual time period novel set in the present and… Yes, the Tudor era, this left me with mixed feelings. As a young reader, before I discovered Georgette Heyer and the Regency period, I had been drawn into reading historical fiction through the Tudors. My wonderful school history teacher, Mrs Chary, had brought alive the history of the period by telling it to us as a story and there was plenty to engage us.

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Talking Tudor Fiction with Suzannah Dunn

Suzannah-DunnNicola here. Today I have the very great pleasure of welcoming best-selling British historical author Suzannah Dunn to the Word Wenches. I first came across Suzannah’s books when she was writing contemporary novels and she became an auto-buy for me. When I discovered that she had turned to writing Tudor-set historical fiction I was very happy indeed! The May Bride is her new book and tells the story of Jane Seymour and Jane's friendship with her dazzling sister-in-law Katherine Filliol. It’s a multi-faceted book with mystery, history, romance, intrigue and family relationships intermingled in a fascinating whole.

Suzannah, welcome to the Word Wenches! The May Bride has Jane Seymour as its narrator but it is as much the story of Jane’s sister-in-law Katherine Filliol as it is of Jane. How did you come across Katherine Filliol’s story? Why did it appeal to you?

I can't remember when I first came across it – it seems always to have been there, off to one side but The May Bride
sort of disappearing whenever I turned to try to look at it, if you know what I mean.  It was never – anywhere – more than a mention, more than a footnote.  And that fascinated me.  Because how could something so big, as it were, have almost disappeared?  Edward Seymour was - became - a Big Tudor, he was Lord Protector for several years of the boy-king Edward V1's reign: ie effectively, he ruled England for those years  (which were years of great change, years which made much of the England that we recognise today).  How did he come to have such a hideous scandal in his private life – and by the way, he was such an unlikely person to have had a hideous scandal in his private life, which also fascinated me - and we know next to nothing about it? (Answer:  Edward was nothing if not efficient, and he was very efficient in keeping this under wraps…)


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Meet Historical Honey!

HH Logo for emailNicola here. Today I am thrilled to welcome Historical
Honey to the Word Wench blog! I first came across the Historical Honey website
a few months ago and was very taken with their eclectic mix of historical
articles, interviews and reviews, from quizzes to discover which of Henry
VIII’s wives you would be to details of costume exhibitions and suggestions for
great places to visit. It’s a box of historical delights!

1. Annabelle,
Jenna and Polly, thank you for joining us today. Where did the idea for the
Historical Honey site first come from?

It all started as a bit of joke, that
we would be historical superheroes, or the ‘historical honeys’ who would bring
history to the masses. Anyway, we soon got serious, dropped the ‘S’, and
Historical Honey was born!

2. Historical Honey’s mission is to
make history more accessible for all. Why is this important to you and how are
you doing it? 

As much as we started off a bit silly,
the premise of the site has always been the same. Whether you are an industry
professional, a student or someone who dips in from time to time, we are
genuinely passionate about creating a platform where people from all walks of
life can share their interests. History is universal, and should be accessible
to everybody, not just people who can understand the archaeological journal. We
like to say it’s ‘history without the cobwebs’.

We know it’s controversial to say, but
the majority of historical sites out there are dull, and even
August newsletter header though the
content can be fascinating, the delivery isn’t accessible and the majority of
people are put off by history for this very reason. Annabelle and Polly are archaeologists, and there are
publications/TV shows (which shall not be named) which in theory they should
read and watch religiously…but they don’t. Why? Because they are boring.

We want to present history in a fun and
engaging way. We actively encourage people to contribute and write 500 word
articles on a subject of their choosing. In the beginning we thought we would
get dozens of articles on popular subjects such as Rome or Egypt. To our
surprise we haven’t received one yet! It’s an amazing insight into how varied
peoples interests are, and there truly is something for everyone.

Whether you visit us just once or
religiously every day, we hope you will learn something, have a giggle and
maybe pass on a little trivia to a friend.

3. The site features all kinds of
quirky articles on history, from badass history boys to how to have sex like
Socrates. How do you decide what sort of articles fit the image of the
Historical Honey site? What are you looking for from potential

We can best describe Historical Honey
as a pick n’ mix of historical content. Sometimes we can be silly, sometimes
naughty, but it’s all what makes us human, right? Folks from history were
certainly no different!

There really are no set rules when it
comes to contributor articles; if someone can bring passion to a subject, it
can’t help but be interesting. It really is passion that is a fundamental
driver behind the whole concept of Historical Honey, and all of our
contributors have passion in abundance!

Alongside articles written by
contributors we also write our own, in-house; ranging from general topics, book
reviews, quizzes, interviews… the great thing about working for Historical
Honey is that we get to write about whatever takes our interest (as long as its

4. What are your own historical
interests and passions, heroes and heroines? 

Annabelle: I am a massive medieval
fan. I dream about life at the Tudor court and chat to Jenna daily
Jenna annabelle polly v2 about Henry
VIII and Anne Boleyn (face to face, via text, Whatsapp…seriously, one day we
should think about publishing our inane conversations about our Henners and
Annie B!) It’s such an obvious one to choose but Anne really is my
heroine.  We will never know what made her tick, and that’s just what
holds our fascination. She had a tragic end, but her strength is something
every woman can relate to.

Jenna: My parents and friends have
always regarded me as a bit of a history geek. As the only member of the HH
team without a background in history or heritage, I can safely say I am your
‘Average Joe’ who loves to learn about the past! Aside from my love for the
Tudor and Victorian periods, my historical interests are limitless. I love to
read about anything morbid; asylums, graveyards, witchcraft and bodysnatching.
I am particularly passionate about fashion throughout history, and the Honey
team are renowned for dressing up in historical garb! As for historical
heroines, that is a hard one, as I am quite changeable! Probably Jane Austen or
John Lennon; both great writers who have changed the world through their work.
Both timeless artists.

Polly: I recently completed a
masters in forensic archaeology and anthropology so I do love a good skelly! I
love how just a few small bones can provide a window into someone's life and
times – even if they lived thousands of years ago. I have a big honey crush on
Charles Darwin, I love Leonardo Da Vinci (especially his anatomical drawings) but
my No.1 hero has to be Agatha Christie. She was an archaeologist before
women were called archaeologists, and wrote many of her stories whilst
travelling around the world – what a life! 

5. If you could back in time to a
moment in history, when would you choose?

Annabelle: There are too many, I
couldn’t possibly choose!

Jenna: Versailles at the time of
Marie Antoinette. I want to know what she was really like.
Second to that, I would love to be a fly on the wall and find out what actually
happened to the Princes in The Tower.

Polly: The roaring 20s – for the
dresses and the cocktails!

6. Historical Honey also reviews
historical fiction. What do you look for in a good historical novel? 

Annabelle: I am sucker for books
which allow me get inside the head of the characters; allowing me to travel
along with them on their journey. Oh and obviously, a little romance never goes

Jenna: I love to get lost in time,
so descriptions of surroundings, dress, smells and food are all important in
building the image in my mind of where the action is taking place. And,
anything a little bit sexy.

Polly: The little details that
show that an author has really read up and done a lot of research about a topic
really makes a historical novel. You need to be able to trust that the author
knows what they are talking about before you can trust in the story.
Topic-wise, I love a good mystery or anything set during the early 20th

7. Can you give us a sneak peek of
what’s coming up next in the Hive? 

Something that has always been really
important to us is helping young people get on the career ladder in the
cultural sector. The HH team have all personally struggled, so we are currently
building a space where all industry jobs and internships from across the
country will be posted. We are also in the process of recruiting industry
professionals to act as mentors for young people, as and when they need it.
Working in this sector is a dream for many people, but with a bit of drive and
a lot of passion it can become a reality.

SECRETBOOKCLUBFORNEWSLETTERAdditionally, we have recently launched
the exciting ‘#SecretBookClub’. Members will receive a free historical novel,
at random, to read. The only catch is they have to send us a short review. As
the majority of us are stuck in a rut when it comes to choosing a book to read,
the #SecretBookClub will allow contributors to read something completely out of
their comfort zone, hopefully providing a more honest review. Whether they love
or hate it, we want to hear about it!

A big thank you to Annabelle, Jenna and
Polly for visiting Word Wenches today and sharing some of the secrets of the
hive. If you would like to find out more about Historical Honey you can find
them here:

Website: www.historicalhoney.com 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/@Historicalhoney

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HHHive

If you have any questions for Historical Honey
please go ahead and ask! Their question to you is which
historical character would you like to exchange places with for a day and how
do you think that person would cope with your life? One commenter gets
the choice of one of my books as the prize.