Imagine a party attended by sitters from English portraits. The Gainsborough crowd rustle in, a blur of silk and powder. You can’t quite bring their faces into focus, but you seem to recognise them. They are elegant and casual. The people who come with Reynolds are their contemporaries, but the atmosphere changes. The men have more gravitas and fall naturally into classical poses, the women are winsomely theatrical. The aristocratic Van Dycks tend towards the soulful and control the arrangement of their pedigree-revealing features, their gestures and their ringlets with an exquisite care that imitates carelessness. The Lelys tumble through the door from another party – the men’s coats unbuttoned, the women’s bosoms as white as their eyes are bright. The Hogarths, a decent, prosperous lot, are here for the food and drink. The Hilliards – some in allusive fancy dress – are full of poetry. The Freuds, who haven’t dressed up at all, slump in armchairs. Some of them fall asleep.

Imagine such a party and you see that while individuals differ – and while successful portrait painters must, in getting a likeness, preserve differences – painters also turn their sitters into types, sometimes, but not always, flattering ones. Painters of Madonnas and Venuses can use a single favourite model; portrait painters, even those who stick to friends and family, must have some interest in variability. How that variability is interpreted will owe a lot to fashions in dress, make-up and movement, but the painter’s gift to the sitter – a place in a world the painter has created – is as important.

What distinguishes the Holbein contingent at the party is that they don’t know there is a party. Holbein doesn’t suggest congeniality by imposing his personality on their personalities. You will remember each face, and would recognise it years later in an identity parade, but as itself, not as one managed by Holbein. The people he portrays have things in common – a certain glumness, a degree of reserve – but the memorable common factor is Holbein’s skill: the precision with which each detail of flesh, fur, embroidery and jewellery is painted.

His portraits are inventories – of clothes, hat badges and jewels, and of noses, eyes and mouths as well. It was the kind of inventory Henry VIII wanted when he sent Holbein off to paint prospective brides. It is known (the unique record of a Holbein sitting) that on one of those scouting trips he spent three hours drawing Christina of Denmark. In the painting her face suggests something which is rare in his portraits, an attractive, amused intelligence. Yet even here one does not doubt his objectivity or suspect flattery, any more than one does in the portraits of friends from his Basel years, Erasmus and the printer Froben, although they too are on the verge of smiling. The drawing of Lady Guildford is unusual; she does pucker up and give a sly look towards her husband, but in the painting she looks ahead and her smile has gone.

So while glumness and grim and nervous looks were common in Holbein’s portraits they were also avoidable. Some commentators find in them a reflection of the risks which went with being one of Henry’s courtiers. In which case other anxieties must have constrained the expressions of Hanseatic merchants and Basel dignitaries. If you think about the way Holbein worked another explanation comes to mind. You can find a match for these down-in-the-mouth expressions in early portrait photographs. They too were records made as truthful mementos of appearance in which attractiveness was a secondary issue (there was even a demand for daguerreotypes of recently dead relatives). Solemnity was a by-product of long exposures. Holding a pose can make your face fall; Holbein’s drawings show people who have been told to keep still.

Holbein in England, at Tate Britain until 7 January, is rich in drawings. A number hang alongside the paintings made from them. The drawing and subsequent portrait of Jane Seymour (1536-37) are shown here. These drawings are evidence of a process: acute looking translated via precise movements of hand and fingers into lines on paper. The viewer has the illusion of participating in both the looking and the drawing. This illusion – of being present during the process of translation – is more remarkable than the illusion the paintings made from the drawings give, that you are in the presence of a person. The painting can seem alive, but the drawing, without creating the same illusion that the person is present, takes you closer to the moment when Holbein faced his subject.

The difference is in part technical. There is evidence from exact matches in scale and from pricked holes outlining features in some drawings, and indentations along them in others, that they were transferred mechanically to the panel. A line carefully tracing another line becomes tentative and stiff in a way one drawn straight off does not. Only in the drawings do you fully appreciate Holbein’s astonishing skill in transferring contours seen in three dimensions onto a two-dimensional sheet, and in modulating lines to carry information about the architecture of the face. In many chalk drawings there are lines – mouth, nose, eyelid or the outside contour of the face – which have been gone over in ink. Although the touch is refined enough to make one believe they are Holbein’s work the effect can jar, particularly in drawings where the chalk lines have become fainter through rubbing. Perhaps this inking over helped him decide what needed to be transferred to the panel. The character of the portrait drawings has led some commentators to make unlikely suggestions about mechanical intervention – drawing on a sheet of glass, for example. However they were arrived at, the results are miraculous.

The Tate exhibition complements one held in April in the Kunstmuseum in Basel which concentrated on work done before Holbein went to England in 1532. There one would have seen the sad and wonderful portrait of his wife and children made in 1528, between his trips to England. She looks down, her eyelids swollen (by dropsy, one is told). It seems to combine the truth of the drawings and the illusion of presence the paintings give. He had it in him, on this evidence, to do greater paintings even than the ones we know. Instead he excelled in an artistic profession as it then existed. In England this meant, as well as being a painter, being on call to design clothes, jewellery, banners, weapons and table silver. In Basel he was an illustrator and provider of title-page borders (his Dance of Death provided much borrowed templates for other memento mori). There, and in England, he painted murals, both inside and outside buildings.

The drawings for pieces of applied art, endlessly inventive in their rearrangement of putti, arabesques of foliage, mermaids and centaurs, are evidence of formidable ability and skill. When Holbein advertised his skills as a painter in the portrait of Georg Gisze, one of the colony of Hanseatic merchants in London from whom he hoped to, and did, get commissions (some are in the exhibition, but not Gisze), it is the props – a glass vase of flowers, a balance, seals, a table carpet and so on – that dominate the picture. In the portrait drawings and in the painting of his wife and children one sees things which the superlative craftsmanship of his rendering of detail tends to mask. It is as though the spirit of a prince-painter, like Titian, were trammelled by the rich burden of a craftsman’s skills and obligations.

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