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Surfacing on the market: Henry after Holbein

Sotheby’s, London, Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale, 8 July

Hans Holbein the Younger’s original “full-frontal” portrait of Henry VIII was designed for the famous Whitehall mural of around 1536—the artist’s group portrait of the king, his wife and his parents. Henry’s imposing bulk and direct gaze were said to have left viewers feeling “abashed and annihilated” as they stood in front of an oversized and (to them) almost impossibly lifelike representation of the most feared man in the kingdom. The mural was destroyed by fire in 1698, but the portrait of Henry is known through countless copies. This sale by Castle Howard is the first time in recent years that a later derivation has come to the market. In the portrait, dated 1542 and estimated to sell for between £800,000 and £1.2m, we see the same head-type used in the mural (an original “mask” based on Holbein’s life drawing would have been reused in his workshop). But the posture is entirely different, thanks to the presence of a gold-tipped staff. This unusual inclusion in a royal portrait—kings were meant to be a picture of good health—must relate to the badly ulcerated legs that, at times, left Henry unable to walk. The contrast with the young prince whose athleticism was noted across Europe could not be greater.