30 August 2018

The Story Behind Tudor Portraits: Edward, Prince of Wales, by Hans Holbein the younger, circa 1538


One of my favourite Holbein paintings, this is said to have been a New Year's gift from the artist on 1st January 1539, to King Henry VIII. Edward VI was born on the 12th October 1537, so would have been less than fourteen months old when he posed for this portrait so I think Holbein has made him look too grown up, a potential ruler, no doubt to please the king.

Henry VIII's only legitimate son, Edward's mother, Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, died 12 days after his birth. Sadly Edward died in 1553,  although he was king of England and Ireland from 1547 until his untimely death.

The inscription below the portrait is translated as:
Little one, emulate thy father and be the heir of his virtue; the world contains nothing greater. Heaven and earth could scarcely produce a son whose glory would surpass that of such a father. Do thou but equal the deeds of thy parent and men can ask no more. Shouldst thou surpass him, thou hast outstript all, nor shall any surpass thee in ages to come. By Sir Richard Morison.
Interesting points about the portrait are that the background was originally a bright blue but has turned greenish-brown over the centuries. The infant prince holds a golden rattle in his left hand, a suggestion of a royal sceptre?

Painted on an oak panel, the skill shown in the foreshortening of the fingers of the prince's right hand and use if shadow gives this portrait a sense of life and movement - although I wonder why Holbein chose the downcast expression?  Could it be that his sitter was getting bored and Hans found it hard to keep him still?

Tony Riches

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