Review: “The Tudors: Passion, Power, and Politics” exhibition

Inspired by a Twitter conversation about this Guardian article, I recently visited “The Tudors: Passion, Power, and Politics” exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath. The article is headlined: ‘Beginning of modern Britain’ and the text talks about a compelling period of “British history”, and relations between “Britain” and European countries. Whilst it makes for a compelling headline (especially in the context of Brexit), it was immediately obvious that the portraits mentioned were all English, and the article made no reference to the fact that Scotland was a separate kingdom in the 16th-century with its own politics and international relationships.

Contrary to the impression given by the article, the exhibition does not erase the Scottish experience of the 16th-century by equating it with “Britain”. However, if you are looking for an exhibition that explores the experiences of the different nations that make of the British Isles, you will not find it here. As the title says, this is an exhibition about the Tudor dynasty. The only non-English figures to feature are Mary, Queen of Scots (in the context of Queenship and conflict with England); Katherine of Aragon (in the context of her marriage into England); Gerlack Flicke (who worked largely in England); and (arguably) half-Welsh Henry VII, though little reference is made to his Welsh roots.

Having established what the exhibition is not, what was my experience of it?

This is a small exhibition occupying one room of the second floor of the museum. The walls are a suitably regal dark purple with dim lights and spots on the portraits giving it an intimate feel. The paintings are all comfortably at eye-height and you are not rushed through, allowing you to examine them in detail. I have seen many of these portraits printed in books or online but nothing can quite compare to seeing them in person – particularly the detail of the backgrounds and accessories, and the luminescence of the gold paints.

Detail from early-17th century copy of Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell

The portraits are arranged chronologically around the outer walls from Henry VIII to a display cabinet with minatures of Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Gerlack Flicke and Henry Strangeways. Included are some of the most recognisable figures of Tudor history – monarchs, noblemen, politicians, soldiers, churchmen, and explorers. Within this, they are also divided thematically into Dynasty, Religion, Conflict, Empire – each with an introductory framing text; a freestanding wall has a collection of portraits around the theme of Queenship. As a device, this did not entirely work for me. Whilst it makes for manageable groups of portraits, it did not allow for the development of a theme across the Tudor period. Thus “Dynasty” was largely about Henry VIII’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon, although portraits of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour were included in this grouping. The implications of Elizabeth I decision not to marry are not explored in detail though the “Conflict” text includes Mary Queen of Scot’s claim to the throne and exectution- there is also a mention of Robert Dudley’s pursuit of her in the caption to his portrait, and a reference to the iconography of the ‘Pelican’ portrait and the realisation she would not marry. Meanwhile, “Conflict” is focused on the conflict between England and Spain in 1588-9. England’s relations with Scotland (outside Mary Queen of Scots), France or the Holy Roman Empire are not explored.

On the whole, the strongest thematic grouping for me was the “Queenship” set of portraits which brought together two portraits of Elizabeth I with portraits of Queen Mary, Lady Jane Grey, and Mary Queen of Scots on one wall. It makes for a very powerful display to have these four women, all with a different experience of Queenship, alongside one another.

Above left: Mary I by Hans Eworth, 1554. Above right: Elizabeth I, unidentified artist c. 1560

My one other quibble was the prominence of Elizabeth I. There are four portraits of her included within the exhibition, more than any other individual. It is understandable in that her portraits are stunning and can be linked to several of the themes, but it felt disproportionate in an exhibition about the Tudor dynasty as a whole.

This exhibition is an excellent opportunity to view some of the most famous images of Tudor England (and some lesser known) paintings, and to do so outside of London – particularly important at the moment when the National Portrait Gallery is closed for refurbishment until 2023. The exhibition is at the Holburne Museum until 8th May 2022 (standard entry: £11 or £12.50 with GiftAid) after which it will move to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool from 21st May to 29th August. There is also an accompanying book which has chapters based around the themes of the exhibition and reproduces a significantly larger number of portraits and paintings.

Personal Highlights:

Katherine of Aragon c. 1520. I just love the expression of determination in this portrait. It really speaks to her character both through the period between Arthur’s death and her marriage to Henry VIII, and during her divorce proceedings.

Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, both c. 1520, unidentified artist

Jane Seymour, unfinished portrait. I have not see this version of this portrait before and it is fascinating to see the work in progress with some of the details of dress and jewellery marked out in pencil or roughly painted in.

Jane Seymour, unfinished copy commissioned after her death, after Hans Holbein

Sir Henry Unton This is a painting that I had not previously seen and it didn’t quite fit into the rest of the exhibition. But I just love the little vignettes of life in late-16th century England.

Sir Henry Unton, Richard Scarlett, 1596-1606

Sir Thomas More. A very famous image but seeing it in person, he just looks so real, you could imagine him standing up and starting to walk around.

Sir Thomas More, early 17th-century copy of Hans Holbein portrait c. 1527

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