Saturday, May 12, 2012

Question from Jo Joyce - Henry VIII and painting

Did Henry VIII paint? Was Henry VIII taught to paint? If so, who taught him?


Foose said...

This is a conjecture, but I believe it would have been entirely inappropriate for Henry VIII to have been taught how to paint.

The status of an artist at time was that of an artisan or craftsman, similar to a member of a trade guild, with guild secrets, and dependent on the patronage of the great or on lesser commissions by private individuals, municipal corporations or the Church. Usually working-class or at most middle-class boys were apprenticed to the trade - see the careers of Leonardo or Michelangelo, or Holbein.

A 16th-century prince, on the other hand, was expected to acquire and exhibit princely accomplishments, like jousting, falconry, polite conversation, Latin, dancing, etc., not grub around vulgarly with paint. People were not encouraged to step out of the station to which God had appointed them. You may recall that princes with lower-class tastes - Edward II with his love of carpentry - were severely censured by their nobles. Consider that even writing was outsourced usually to professional scribes - again lower- or middle-class people or religious - and you can see that taking up drawing was probably not a natural activity for Henry. He was indeed an avid annotator and addict of marginalia in his perusal of religious works, but we have no evidence of Henry doodling.

I'm not sure when painting began to become an acceptable aristocratic accomplishment; certainly Queen Victoria could sketch and do watercolors, Napoleon signed up his second wife for drawing lessons, Marie Antoinette and her sisters left charming impressions of family life. I think it probably became more acceptable earlier for aristocratic and royal women to take it up as a suitable genteel indoors accomplishment than for men (and probably not before the 18th century; no evidence of Henry's queens or daughters dabbling). I found a reference that the future Mary II and her sister Anne were taught drawing by a pair of court dwarfs accomplished in miniature painting.

Painting's increasing popularity among the upper classes may also have been driven by its association with therapeutic relaxation and leisure, but I'm not sure how this connection was initially fostered.

The only royal man I could find painting in the late 17th-early 18th century was Frederick the Great's father, Frederick William II (1688-1740). Given to fits of madness, he created rather weird canvases in oils, including self-portraits signed "in tormentis pinxit" (painted in torment). But even here he had a real lower-class artist mix the paints and do the initial limning before he took over.

The artistic inclination seems odd because the king was a fanatical martinet obsessed with his army and war, regularly beating up his son for his effete tastes in French literature and music. I don't know how Frederick William learned; Thomas Carlyle suggests his mother sketched, but I couldn't find evidence of formal training for either one.

tudor princess said...

Painting, as Foose outlines, was not really seen as a gentlemanly pastime in Tudor England.

Indeed, there is a charming self-portrait of George Gower (Elizabeth I's Sergeant Painter) with a pair of scales in the background. One pan contains a pair of artist's compasses whilst the other contains a coat of arms.

The scales are tipped down in favour of the compasses to show that Gower has made his choice to pursue the calling of an artist, against the gentlemanly pursuits.

Henry VIII certainly possessed artistic appreciation. We can see this through the retention of Holbein's portrait of Christina of Milan.

As for the doodling, surely the most famous of Henry's doodles is the heart he drew in his love letters to Anne Boleyn, stating that "Henry seeks AB, no other"!

Foose said...

There's a scene in Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies in which Henry is depicted as drawing up architectural plans. This is supported by Alison Weir's Henry VIII: The King and His Court - "Henry could draw up his own very competent building plans. He kept such plans and drawing instruments - scissors, compasses, drawing irons, and a steel pen - in his closet at Greenwich." David Howarth's Images of Rule notes that Henry "drew up some 'platts,' or plans, of coastal defences ..."

So perhaps Henry could draw but confined it to building and architectural plans, rather than likenesses of his companions or landscapes or what we would think of as obvious drawing subjects (excluding the heart that tudor princess notes above). Again, I think architectural drawing at the time was another professional, artisan-class activity outside the usual pursuits of the Renaissance elite, so it would be interesting to find out how he learned this "trade."

Perhaps Cardinal Wolsey found someone to teach him. Henry VII was interested in architecture, but I don't know if his interest would have extended to engaging a drawing-master for his son who specialized in architectural work. Wolsey, I have read, wanted to encourage the king as a builder to deflect him from the expensive business of making war (although I think building could turn out equally costly) and Francis I may have furnished a competitive goad with his Italianate palaces, like Chambord (although I haven't seen anything to indicate the French king drew up building plans).

Foose said...

James I's daughter Elizabeth Stuart, the exiled Queen of Bohemia, and her daughters took painting lessons from the Dutch artist Honthorst - Louise became particularly accomplished.

Fictional treatments of the Winter Queen always indicate that her family was considered fairly eccentric by the society they lived in and by other nobles and royalty. However, her daughter Sophia (later the Electress of Hanover) acknowledges her sister Louise's talent in her Memoirs with no trace of embarrassment ("so strong was [Louise's] talent for [painting] that she could take likenesses without seeing the originals.")

Possibly Sophia, who was always very sensitive to issues of rank and position, was aggressively preempting any accusations that her sisters (impoverished exiles) were behaving below their station; on the other hand, she was a vigorous patroness of the arts in her maturity, so perhaps her enthusiasm was genuine.

It's an open question whether the Bohemian-Stuart girls would have taken painting lessons if their circumstances had been less unusual. Their place of exile, the United Dutch Republic, was then experiencing its "Golden Age" of culture, and possibly the practice of painting had assumed a different aspect than it had 100 years before. There's also the consideration that the girls of the family, with no money and limited society, actively sought some kind of mental occupation - Elizabeth Stuart the younger became a noted philosopher.

The lessons would have occurred in the 1630s and 1640s, not that far removed from Henry VIII's time - but again, there is no indication that the numerous brothers of Louise took painting lessons, just the mother and girls.

Sophia was the maternal grandmother of the painting king of Prussia, Frederick William, so the Bohemian-Stuart connection is perhaps the vector by which he took an interest in painting.

Foose said...

"Elizabeth Stuart the younger" should probably be "Elizabeth of the Palatinate" - I think the Palatinate electors were technically Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, from the Simmern junior branch, but nobody ever seems to give their family members that surname in the histories and biographies.