The Real Tudors : Kings and Queens Rediscovered – Charlotte Bolland and Tarnya Cooper

This fascinating book has been published to accompany an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Rather than just another collection of Tudor portraits, the curators have used infrared reflectography, X-radiography & photomicroscopy (I know, I don’t know what that means either) to allow us to look beneath the surface of well-known images of the Tudor monarchs & see what has been lost through time & dirt or what changes the artist made while painting the picture. It’s the perfect combination of history & art.

Each chapter has a timeline for the monarch’s life & a brief discussion of the importance of images during the reign as well as a discussion of the afterlife of the monarch’s image. Images of the monarch could be used as propaganda, showing the King richly dressed & prosperous. They could be used in marriage negotiations to entice a prospective partner – although we know how badly that could turn out. Poor Anne of Cleves could never have lived up to the enticing portrait Holbein painted for Henry VIII. At least Christina of Denmark was too clever to even consider marrying Henry when he was very taken by her picture. In Elizabeth’s reign, it became fashionable for her courtiers to have a portrait of the Queen in their home & approved images were copied by other artists, some more proficient than others. Then, there are the effigies that were placed on the monarch’s coffin at their funeral. The effigies of Henry VII & Elizabeth of York are part of the exhibition & a later portrait of Henry is said to have been based on the effigy.

Each chapter ends with an examination of one of the portraits. Here is a portrait of Mary I by Hans Eworth. On the right hand side, the portrait has been X-rayed & the back of the portrait, painted on a wood panel with the later addition of extra panels for support, can be clearly seen. It’s so interesting to see the back of the portrait too. The picture experts on the Antiques Roadshow always say that there’s sometimes more information on the back of the picture than on the front.

Then, infrared reflectography shows the underdrawing that was done & how thin the layers of paint are, allowing the underdrawing to show through. On the right hand page are more close-up details of the golden cloth on the sleeves, the jewel in the pendant & the artist’s monogram. I find all this detail fascinating & it’s wonderful to see such well-known images examined in this way.

I would love to have had a chance to see the exhibition but this beautifully produced book is definitely the next best thing.

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