Sunday, 2 October 2011

Portraits and Costumes: Henry VIII and Wives

It seems to be a thing that every other historical attraction with an empty room and a tenuous connection to the infamous Henry VIII will have a display of him and his six wives. Or it may simply seem so as I've seen three such arrangements (Warwick Castle; Hever Castle; Hampton Court), two of them in the recent past and have been musing on the subject.

The costumes are all clearly taken from iconic portraits, though some details differ. This set of photos are taken at Warwick Castle. The room was quite dark, so I've tweaked the colours and contrasts on these photos for a little more clarity.

Putting the portraits and the photos of the costumes side by side is a tad disappointing. Henry VIII, for example, isn't as insanely wide as his portrait. The lines of the costumes simply aren't as crisp and clean, or as detailed and opulent. All this is perhaps more fault of the portrait than the costume. After all, a portrait is not a photograph and it is hardly the fault of the costume makers that they cannot reproduce the exact idealised world of the portrait. Equally, the budget for the costume probably cannot match that of a Queen of England's. That, and puffed linings are obnoxiously hard to get right in real life.

The challenges reminded me greatly of those faced by cosplayers who want replicate (or in some cases simply evoke) a particular costume that exists only on the page or screen.

On the subject of Tudor portraits, I found this portrait archive particularly comprehensive.

Also, here's an iron capotain. It's awesome. Made all the more amusing to me due to the sheer number of hats that have been worn as "armour" (some with more justification than others) over the years.

More photos of the exhibition and some associated rambling under the cut.

Catherine of Aragon, based on the 1530 portrait by an unknown artist. She is apparently holding a bunch of lavender in the portrait.

Incidentally, I'm trying to work out which portrait Andrew Brown rather uncharitably describes as containing the sulk that "does as much to explain the attraction of Anne Boleyn, and so, perhaps, the foundation of the Church of England, as even the very best histories of the period."

I'm not sure what exactly it says of us, the way we tell history to ourselves that the young Catherine, the one of it Sittow portrait is eclipsed by the older, perhaps more bitter woman whom Henry divorced. But it probably says something. She was, after all, wife to him for over twenty years. Her story doesn't start with her old and barren, but it seems more often than not told that way.

Anne Boleyn, with her famous "B" necklace. Among many other things, Anne was passionate about music and played the lute, harp, rebec and virginal. The lyric O Deathe rock me asleepe is attributed to her and you can hear it sung with the lute at The Medieval Lady.

The article Which is the True Face of Anne Boleyn? at the Anne Boleyn Files offers a fascinating summary of the various portraits of her and arguments for and against the accuracy of each. Though I'd like to add that Anne isn't really unique in our ignorance of what she looked like. There's also a gallery at The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn that's very good, though it does include non-contemporary portraits as well.

Jane Seymour, based on the 1537 Hans Holbein portrait, said to be the artist's first portrait done as the King's Painter. The function of this portrait is, apparently, unknown.

The thing that looks like an additional black shawl isn't. It's actually the hanging veils of the gable hood. They seem to have decided not to pin it up into the headdress as per the painting and simply have them hang loose (though having them hang in front of the body does seem rather unusual). Also, for those intrigued by gable hoods, here's a website with extensive instructions on how to make one.

Anne of Cleves, based on the 1539 betrothal portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. There's quite a bit of commentary on this portrait due to it being one of the deciding factors in the marriage negotiations. It is also said that after feeling terribly deceived by this portrait, Holbein received no further important commissions from the king.

It is observed that Holbein was "more fascinated with the embroidery of her gown than with Anne's personality [...] her eyes are downcast and her features lost beneath the ornate trappings of her dress and hood." So perhaps it is ironic that in this case it is only the costumes that is reproduced, that Anne is very literally overshadowed by her raiment.

Henry's remark on Anne being the "Flanders Mare" has really rather seeped into public consciousness and has shaped her history. The Raucous Royals literally illustrates the rumour with her as a horse (though admittedly as a quick gag with the intention of encouraging young readers to be a history detective).

Catherine Howard, painted on the back of a playing card. There really aren't that many portraits of her, and perhaps because of that, there has been something of a scrabble to find some. Madame Guillotine has quite an intriguing discussion of some of the regular suspects. Tudor History has a discussion on the relatively recent Starkey identification (not pictured). That all said, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with commentators dismissing portraits based on attractiveness (or lack thereof).

I can't seem to find evidence that Catherine owned a book of hours with Ghent-Bruges strewn borders, but it's entirely possible. They were very fashionable and utterly gorgeous items. Anne Boleyn's book of hours, on the other hand, is extensively documented online, including in a British Library podcast. I've even seen it in the flesh at Hever Castle (it is, incidentally, beautiful).

Katherine Parr, based on the 1545 panel painting of her. She is most famous for being the only wife who survived Henry VIII (though technically untrue since Anne of Cleves went on to live quietly up until Elizabeth's reign). She is said to have married Henry despite being in love with Thomas Seymour (brother to Jane Seymour).

I rather like the more exciting colours of the recently identified, formerly Lady Jane Grey portrait. But I suppose it wouldn't fit the display's colour scheme.

Henry VIII, based on the Holbein-esque portrait, even adopting a similar pose. Oddly enough, they didn't go for the even more iconic, perhaps quintessential Henry VIII portrait (the one hyperbolically termed by Derek Wilson as "the best piece of propaganda ever.") Perhaps they decided that they had quite enough red in the display at that point and wanted him to stand out.

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