I was lucky enough recently to find myself quite alone in gallery 643 of the Metropolitan Museum (the Met) in New York.
As crowds rushed past on their way to ogle the deserved glory that is the Rembrandts, the palm-sized portrait of an Official from the Court of Henry VIII (the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap), sat unnoticed in its display-case. But to its now-unknown sitter, it may have represented the most costly investment of his life.
It was painted in 1534 by Hans Holbein, the German artist whose growing reputation and unnervingly-brilliant talent meant that by 1534, on his second stay in England, he was the hottest painter in town. He was much in demand, being taken up especially by the Boleyn faction at Court. Holbein started to paint miniatures (or ‘limning,’ as it was known) in around 1532, quickly surpassing Lucas Horenbout, the ‘Kings Own Painter,’ in artistic genius.The Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap is bigger than a miniature, but is still tiny, and it is painted in ‘miniature’ style. Stylistically, it is closest to a pair of paintings of Court Officials by Holbein now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Traditionally, historians have argued that the pair in Vienna represent Susanna Horenbout and her English husband, John Parker, and that the man in the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap is in fact Susanna’s brother, the famous ‘King’s Painter’ himself, Lucas Horenbout. Whilst this opinion has been advanced over the last hundred years, recent publications have now thrown doubt on all three of these sitter’s identities. It is safe to say there is a lack of any corroborating evidence for Lucas Horenbout to be identified as the sitter of the painting in the Met with any degree of certainty. All that can be said for certain is that the sitter of a Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap is a man who worked for Henry VIII in some capacity at Court.
Assuming the portrait is not of Horenbout, I wondered at the possible motivation for commissioning the exquisite and expensive portrait. Tudor portraits famously contain all manner of contemporary symbolism to convey messages, most lost on us today. But we do know that Tudor portraits were commissioned for delicate negotiations such as engagements, as in the case of Holbein’s Jane Small in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, or to advertise wealth. Often, miniatures were used to broker and seal marriage deals, most famously of course in the case of Holbein’s gorgeous miniature of Anne of Cleves of 1539. Despite the image’s appeal, Henry VIII later dubbed its unfortunate sitter the ‘Flanders Mare’, stating he had been misled by the painting.The portability of a painting, usually in an integrated frame, was therefore crucial, and the painting in the Met is thought to have originally had a protective fitted ‘cover’ for preserving the painting and aiding its transport.
Conjecture and a sheer absence of any facts in this case allows me to guess at the possibility that this young Court Official was announcing in the costliest, showiest terms that he had available to him that he had ‘made it’ at Court; that he was a ‘good catch.’ As indeed he may have been; King Henry VIII famously rewarded his officials handsomely, far more than other noblemen would have paid to their retainers. To an official who worked hard, and well, there was also the promise of promotion, lodgings, ‘bouche’ of Court, and the right to receive tips or perks (unused food or clothing, for which there was always an eager market.) To hold a job at Court was seen as prestigious, and secure. There was even a certain expectation of a pension in old age.
If this Official was doing well enough to engage Holbein to capture his likeness, then he would indeed have made a promising marriage-match for some hopeful family. We can imagine the painting being sent out, carefully wrapped, to Kent or Surrey perhaps, or even further afield.If, in the unlikely event that this was commissioned by the Official for himself, then he commissioned well. For, unless he was attached permanently to one of Henry VIII’s great palaces, he would have found himself on the move a great deal; Henry VIII’s Court was famously an itinerant one, and in the 1530s the Court was averaging thirty moves to different houses and palaces per year. One can only imagine the repacking and packing the Court Officials found themselves involved in, a staggering feat that sometimes saw up to 3,000 people on the move at once; a truly portable Court. Such a painting (with its clever size and protective cover) would have been handy, when, at a moment’s notice (as could happen in times of political unease or plague,) a Courtier found himself having to throw his belongings into his knapsack or trunk, ready for another journey.
This painting is of course too large to be listed among the tiny miniatures painted by Holbein to be worn as a type of jewel, given as a sign of love. Legend has it that an irate Anne Boleyn tore a jewel from the neck of her supplanter, Jane Seymour, and found within it a miniature of the King, given to Jane by the King himself. And while it does not have the pathos of Horenbout’s tiny painting of a declining, night-cap-wearing Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, or the mystery and intrigue of any of the miniatures of Henry VIII’s wives (the identity of some of which are still the subject of debate), I am sure that to the man who commissioned it, and possibly to the person who received it, the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap was a rare jewel indeed.L.B.Hathaway
LB Hathaway is a Cambridge-educated British writer. Her Tudor thrillers, Cape Scarlett and The Night Crow (set at the Court of Henry VIII) will be released in 2014 as the first two novels of a Trilogy.
Her non-fiction book Henry VIII: The Roaming King – the Tudor Court on the Move will be released at the end of 2014. For questions or quotations in support of the above, please contact her on:
Hathaway_lb@yahoo.com or follow her on twitter- @LBHathaway