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?