by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Why British Artists Needed Hans

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 2 February 2024
Louvre, Paris
Erasmus of Rotterdam by Hans Holbein, c. 1523



Hans Holbein was born in Augsburg in Germany some time in 1497-98, but it was in Basel, which had joined the Swiss Confederation in 1501, that he would first make his mark.

This city, has 'a most distinguished artistic and intellectual tradition. If she did not produce great men, she always knew how to attract them,' according to M.D. Hottinger, that lively chronicler of Switzerland's lovely medieval towns.

Two of these great men would arrive in Basel within a year of each other, in 1514 and 1515. The first was the most famous humanist scholar of the age, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the second an unknown teenage artist, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Both were initially attracted to the city by the same thing. Again in Hottinger's words: '[Basel] had the most flourishing paper industry in the South German lands. Paper mills had been working since 1420, and in connection with them grew up her great publishing industry.' Erasmus went there to publish his writings and the young artist to seek work as a woodcut illustrator for the many fine books that were coming off Basel's thriving presses. As another German, Albrecht Dürer, had demonstrated by then, an artist could win Europe-wide renown and riches through extensive distribution of his graphic works.

The meeting of Erasmus and Holbein would lead to a lifelong friendship and, in due course, Holbein's decision to try his fortunes in England, where he would go on to transform the British art scene. His brilliant career in this country is now explored in an absorbing exhibition, Holbein at the Tudor Court, curated by Kate Howard at the Queen's Gallery in London.

Erasmus led a peripatetic life as a scholar, which included periods in the early 16th century when he taught successively at Oxford and then Cambridge. Some time after he settled in Basel in 1514, he wrote to a friend: 'I am extraordinarily happy. Every day I enjoy the society of learned men. Everybody understands Latin and Greek, many even Hebrew.' This was something of an exaggeration. However, Holbein, who arrived the following year as a mere journeyman artist, being immensely ambitious, attended one of the city's Latin schools (open to all ages and both sexes) and mastered the language sufficiently to impress Erasmus.

Apart from his regular work making woodcut illustrations Holbein rapidly gained commissions for devotional paintings, murals, portraits of the city's grandees and designs for jewellery, metalwork and stained glass. The burghers of Basel were not slow to realize that they had an artistic prodigy in their midst and, for the rest of his career, strenuously strived to reward him sufficiently to keep him there or to entice him (for the most part, unsuccessfully) to return.

Holbein customized the margins of Erasmus's own copy of the Basel edition of his bestseller In Praise of Folly with scores of witty and satirical virtuoso drawings. Appreciating how useful the young tyro could be in promoting his own international image, Erasmus would eventually commission, from 1523 onwards, no fewer than eight portraits from Holbein. Two he dispatched to a couple of his old English friends, William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the humanist, lawyer and politician Sir Thomas More. One of these paintings is now at the National Gallery in London. A third, possibly originally sent to Margaret Roper, More's daughter and Erasmus's translator from Latin into English, is now at the Louvre.

Nor did Holbein miss the opportunity to advertize himself through these likenesses of the celebrity scholar. He had already started - very much against standard practice - to sign his frontispieces for books with HH in imitation of Dürer's trademark AD,. Or even Hans Holb. In his Erasmus portrait for Warham, he not only included his full signature but added, 'whom it is easier to denigrate than emulate', a classical reference (to the ancient Greek artist Apelles) and intellectual in-joke.

Holbein took another version of the Erasmus portrait with him to France in 1524 as a gift from the Dutch scholar to Francis I, at whose glittering court, where Leonardo da Vinci had spent his final years, the German artist was probably hoping to find employment. Another factor in his decision to absent himself from Basel might have been his irascible wife, Elsbeth, 'who had so bad a disposition that he never could expect any peace or rest with her', according to his Dutch biographer Carel van Mander.

He ultimately failed to find a position in France, but was able to immerse himself in the French king's superlative collection of Italian Renaissance art, which was to have a major influence on him thereafter. He also encountered the resident Netherlandish artist and draughtsman Jean Clouet. Holbein adopted from Clouet the use of coloured chalks for preparatory portraits, the primary medium of most of those in the magnificent Royal collection of Holbeins. Clouet was also a pioneer of the independent portrait miniature, a form that Holbein would later perfect in London, to rival the Flemish miniature painter at Henry VIII's court, Lucas Hourenbout.

It was in August 1526 that Erasmus arranged for Holbein to travel to England. When he arrived, Sir Thomas More received him as a guest at his large house in Chelsea. More, who had a greater interest in painting than most cultured Englishmen at that time, was already familiar with Holbein's work through his portrait of Erasmus. He wrote to the Dutch scholar: 'Your painter friend, my dear Erasmus, is a wonderful artist. I fear he will not find England the rich and fertile land he hoped. However, lest he find it quite barren, I shall do what I can.' He commissioned the artist to do the now famous portrait of him in his role as a statesman and member of the King's Council, with his luxurious sable collar and gold chain of office. But the majestic image was humanized by the slight stubble on More's chin, brilliantly rendered catching the light.

More also commissioned a large group portrait of his household, some of them holding books, so perhaps about to begin an intellectual family symposium. The painting was destroyed in the 18th century, but Holbein's sketch is now preserved at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, while the individual preparatory chalk drawings of the various sitters are in the Royal Collection. More also had the artist paint for his private chapel a biblical picture, 'Noli Me Tangere', clearly influenced by the Italian pictures Holbein had seen in France.

In 1528 Holbein returned to Basel to avoid losing his citizenship. He completed projects he had undertaken there earlier, but the triumph of Protestantism and the outbreak of iconoclasm in the city now meant that devotional commissions dried up. Accordingly, he returned to England in 1532, where he found new patrons for portraits.

Among the first he attracted were the German Hanseatic merchants, who had a special quarter in the City set aside for them, the Steelyard. One of the most striking of these portraits is of the trader Derich Born, with a lengthy Latin inscription including the words: 'If you added a voice this would be Derich his very self.'

Holbein's technical brilliance and uncanny ability to catch likenesses soon led to numerous commissions from the great and the good at the Tudor court and he would eventually paint a quarter of the peerage and many other leading figures of the times. In 1536 he became the King's Painter on a salary of £30, but never lived at court. He made only a limited number of portraits of the king himself, yet in these Holbein established the abiding image of Henry VIII for all time.

In 1538-39 the monarch sent Holbein on several missions abroad to make studies of prospective brides, these included a miniature of Anne of Cleves (now at the V&A) and a full-length portrait of the widowed Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan (now at the National Gallery).

One of the most valuable aspects of Holbein's sketches is their preservation of the likenesses of the major cultural figures of the epoch. Notable among these are sketches of the poets Sir Thomas Wyatt, who introduced from Italy the sonnet form into English verse, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed by Henry in 1547, and Mary Shelton.

After his death in London in 1543, Holbein's large collection of preparatory drawings appears to have been acquired by Henry. But subsequently they had an adventurous time, passing through a number of hands, with some pieces being subtracted and others added (and name captions included later). But by 1675 the bulk of them were again in Royal possession, having 'happily fallen' into the collection of Charles II. Since then, as their periodic display has revealed, they have remained a unique treasure trove bearing witness to the genius of this artist, who did so much to raise the standard and status of art in his adopted country.

Holbein at the Tudor Court; Queen's Gallery, London; 10 November - 14 April 2024

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024