With the televising of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall an argument is developing which may even have a sectarian character. Mantel, a convent girl herself, is accused of ‘horrible history’ over her sympathetic treatment of Thomas Cromwell and her ‘character assassination’ of Thomas More. Writing in the Sunday times Daniel Johnson blames Protestant propaganda and although he admits that ‘the saintly Thomas More’ did torture and burn six individuals accused of heresy, he was just carrying out his duty according to the law. The Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak who had a Catholic upbringing, is also having nothing to do with Mantel revisionism, as he has made clear in an article and in his television piece on the painter Hans Holbein the Younger.
I have no religious views myself (although my parents attended the Church of Scotland) but it does seem to me that it was no bad thing that ordinary people should be able to read the principal text that was the basis of the religion they were supposed to be adhering to and that the Reformation was a move towards enlightenment even though the Protestants were soon matching the old Church with their own atrocities. If Cromwell did indeed try to intervene in the case of the supposed heretic Little Bliney, he is a bit redeemed in my eyes. As for Thomas More, it seems to me incredible that the Roman Catholic Church should have made him a saint in the twentieth century.
When I read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I found myself constantly looking at the portraits of the characters produced by Holbein the Younger. I have a catalogue of his drawings from the Queen’s Collection shown many years ago in the National Gallery of Scotland and also several reproductions of the Tudor paintings. I thought I could detect signs of humanity in Cromwell although he was obviously wary, watching his back. More, I thought, looked shifty. Unequivocally, Norfolk looked a thorough thug. But it raises the question: how much can painters portray the mental make-up of their sitters?
Many years ago I remember a critic objecting to the idea that Rembrandt painted the human mind, and he added that even Gombrich was not immune to such nonsense. Nobody, he avowed, painted the human face more like a still life than Rembrandt. Gombrich replied, pointing out that what he had written was, ‘I know no other way of describing the almost uncanny knowledge Rembrandt appears to have had of human feelings and human reactions’ (My italics). The critic duly apologised.
It is tempting to divide portrait painters into two groups, the hard-lookers and the flatterers. Rembrandt was certainly a hard-looker, but one who was pretty much unique in his use of paint. Some of his self-portraits, like that in the National Gallery of Scotland are worked in unbelievable detail without the hard porcelain effect usual in most precision works. Holbein was also a hard-looker, in a different style. Among the most famous flatterers are van Dyck and Velasquez.
Charles I was in actuality a rather vertically challenged individual yet in paintings by van Dyck he appears as a tall elegant cavalier. Obviously, hard-looking had to be modified in some circumstances. Velasquez had a different type of problem to cope with: the Hapsburg chin. The Emperor Leopold I had such an enlarged lower jaw that when outdoors his mouth filled with rain. Several of the family were unable to eat in company. In the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, alongside portraits by Velasquez of Philip IV can be seen a portrait bust of his son Charles II. The sculpture shows just how grotesque this trait could be. Even if Philip was not so badly afflicted as his heir, I think a certain chin reducing is detectable in the great court-painters work.
I was recently looking through a catalogue from an exhibition entitled The Early Portrait from the collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein and the Kunstmuseum Basel. The northern artists were not mainly household names, but they were all hard-lookers and seemed to give psychological insights. My conclusion is that if a painter looks intently and records visual characteristics, he or she will also appear to give psychological insights, which may or may not be accurate. What anyone gleans, from looking at Holbein’s portraits of the Tudors will depend on other things.