Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell with measured understatement and I was pleased to hear him open up on the latest edition of BBC Radio 4`s Desert Island Discs (another personal favourite). Well worth a listen.
When I then stumbled across Waldemar Januszczak`s wonderfully enthusiastic exposition of Hans Holbein the Younger in a BBC Culture Show specially produced to coincide with Wolf Hall, it really made my day.
I`ve long been an admirer of this artist, perhaps the first true `realist` portrait painter, and a man it turns out who had a fabulously exciting artistic odyssey chronicling the lives of the great and the good of Tudor England - whilst managing to avoid having his head chopped off.
German by birth, this "genius who looked like a farmer" had two lengthy spells in England. The first time he was taken under the wing of Sir Thomas More, for whom he painted this marvellous portrait which hangs in the fabulous Frick Museum in New York. His rendering of those vermilion velvet sleeves is masterful. The face has a sad intensity about it. As if the sitter knew what was in store for him.
For King Henry VIII himself however political expediency seems to have won the day with Holbein, who had once again miraculously managed to sidestep the fall from grace of both the Boleyns and Cromwell to become appointed one of the King`s court painters. Here is his famous life size portrait.
Holbein also carried out several commissions to paint existing (and potential future) wives for Henry. In this pre-selfie age the importance of this cannot be underestimated. The King could not simply drop affairs of state to treck around Europe checking out the talent. He very often had to rely on paintings given to him. This seems to have worked well until the unfortunate 24 year old Anne of Cleves. The portrait done by Holbein must have flattered the subject. The marriage having already been arranged, upon first seeing her in the flesh apparently Henry`s jaw dropped and he felt physically repulsed. (The marriage was never consummated, the match annulled, but at least she lived to tell the tale). Again, a dangerous situation if you are the painter responsible? But Holbein survived that one, too.
My own favourite of Holbein`s paintings is The Ambassadors, that gobsmacking creation that hangs in The National Gallery. Januszczak comments about Holbein that he "gave Tudor England an extraordinarily active presence; he made it feel real". To me this painting exquisitely conveys this. A huge canvas depicting two French ambassadors together with various accoutrements - a globe, measuring instruments, a lyre, books. Whenever I see it in person I am mesmerised by the incredible verisimilitude of the carpet which is draped over the sideboard.
What a time to live. What a time to be a court painter. I wonder if Holbein will make a cameo appearance in the next episode of Wolf Hall? Perhaps not. This time around it is the BBC cameraman - and the costume department - that hold all the aces.