‘Holbein redeemed a whole era for us from oblivion,’ remarks the author of a trilogy of novels set at Henry VIII’s court. ‘He has forced us to believe that his vision of it was the only feasible one.’
This is a bit of a tease. It’s not written by Hilary Mantel, as you might be expecting, but by Ford Madox Ford, who, a century before Wolf Hall, published a sequence of novels about Henry’s fifth queen, Katharine Howard. Nevertheless, Ford’s point is irrefutable. It is impossible to imagine the England of Henry VIII except through the eyes of ‘the King’s Painter’, Hans Holbein. Not just the king, portrayed as massive, brutish, dominating — and with the largest codpiece in western Christendom — but a host of courtiers, queens, prelates, merchants, humanists and martyrs, captured in around 50 surviving paintings and double that number of preparatory drawings, and brought astonishingly to life.
The artist himself, though, remains unknowable and enigmatic. The Holbein scholar Paul Ganz once claimed that any biography of the painter was doomed to be ‘a dry recital of facts’, revealing almost nothing of his personality or private life. Unlike Dürer, his near contemporary, Holbein didn’t record his ideas in treatises or notebooks. His will is the only surviving personal document. This was discovered in 1861 in the archives of St Paul’s Cathedral, and showed that he hadn’t lived through the reign of Edward VI, as previously thought, but had died in 1543. The will says nothing about the dispersal of his work, nor even of his painter’s tools. It does reveal that he had a second family, two infant children in England in addition to the three he’d left behind in his native city of Augsburg with his wife Elsbeth.
Franny Moyle’s ambitious, sumptuously illustrated book can’t overcome this fundamental problem.