'His face is angelic rather than handsome; his head imperial': The Venetian Lodovico Falier's 1531 description of the forty-year-old King Henry VIII probably owes more to an impressionable than an impartial mind. It demonstrates, however, the impressive force of character behind the image of that celebrated monarch. Famous today as much through the efforts of Hollywood as Holbein, Henry's importance in English history rests in straddling like a colossus the two worlds of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe. His convoluted diplomacy, leading eventually to his celebrated break with Rome, and his ruthless domestic tyranny caused the final extinction of the medieval aristocracy, and ushered in the families that were to dominate the flowering of Elizabethan England. It was the wealth of Henry's disbanded monasteries that payed for the palaces of Elizabeth's reign, and the unity created by his extermination of dynastic threats that nurtured her playwrights and poets.
The dynastic turbulence of fifteenth-century England had been so severe that the importance of public display of loyalty to the Crown increased exponentially under the Tudor monarchy. This was especially so because of the paucity of heirs to the dynasty through its century-long existence. The Crown quickly realised the importance of control of so vital a source of propaganda as portraiture, and the images of monarchy therefore develop in the sixteenth-century into political statements of considerable power.
This composition, with the full-force of the Royal authority staring at the spectator, is derived from a lost image of Henry by Holbein, part of a mural for Whitehall Palace, executed in 1536-7, which is known from a seventeenth-century copy made for King Charles II by Remegius Leemput (Royal Collection) and from the surviving left hand section of the artist's original cartoon (London, National Portrait Gallery). The head of the King in the cartoon is derived from Holbein's earlier portrait of the King now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and the fact that in the finished painting the King is shown looking directly outward, unlike in the cartoon (in which he is shown looking right), implies that there was a new sitting for it. In the Whitehall mural, the King stood full-length, legs astride, with his parents, King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, as well as his fourth wife, Jane Seymour (mother of his only surviving son, King Edward VI). The image was one of the most potent of the authority of monarchy ever devised, and the model for subsequent portraits of Henry, and the type remains today the most famous of all portrayals of King Henry VIII.
The Whitehall mural was the last time that King Henry VIII sat for Holbein and the face-mask was reused by the artist for his unfinished group portrait of Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons (London, Barbers' Company). Early full-length versions of the Whitehall portrait type are in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Early three-quarter-length versions, most probably executed in the King's lifetime, are in The Royal Collection at Windsor and the Galleria Corsini, Rome.
Dendrochronological investigation of the Baltic oak support of this portrait reveals that the last tree ring is of 1530, which implies a felling date no earlier than 1538 and a usage date most likely within thirty years of 1538, suggesting, in other words, that the portrait was painted either in the latter part of King Henry VIII's reign or at some point in the reigns of his children Edward VI, Mary I, or early in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The portrait comes from the distinguished collection of the Dukes of Hamilton, and is likely to have hung at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, of which the Dukes of Hamilton are Hereditary Keepers, and at Hamilton Palace, although it is not known when it entered the collection. It is possible that it passed directly from King Henry VIII to his brother-in-law Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, whose descendant William, 1st Marquess of Douglas, married Anne, Duchess of Hamilton. Alternatively it may have been owned by the great collector James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, who is recorded as owning two portraits of King Henry VIII. James, 3rd Marquess of Hamilton and 1st Duke of Hamilton, was a favourite of King Charles I, an ardent Royalist and among the most notable art collectors of his generation. Much of the celebrated Hamilton collection was dispersed in sales that began with a famous sale in 1882, and others that followed the demolition of Hamilton Palace in 1921.