The BBC have long been accustomed to producing high quality historical drama and Wolf Hall, the sumptuous serialisation of Hilary Mantel`s Booker-winning novel is no exception.
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.
Holbein was apparently a house guest of the great man during this first visit, and he also painted him with his family. Alas Sir Thomas More would not survive his disapprobation of Henry`s impending divorce to Catherine of Aragon. Holbein with no little sleight managed to inveigle himself with the up and coming Boleyn family and the increasingly influential Thomas Cromwell. His portrait of Cromwell could not be less flattering. It hangs on the other side of the fireplace at the Frick and Januszczak points out the mean inscrutability of the likeness. Quite a brave man to deliver such a portrait at a time when your head could be lopped off for much less!
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.
It is famous as much for the physical stature with which he imbued the king as for the bravura of the paintwork. Henry`s subsequent reputation as a sizeable man must have owed a lot to this portrait. Just look at the abnormal breadth of his shoulders - as wide as a barn door. Good with a bow the King was, we`re told. Strong. Well, looking at this he could easily be playing prop for England in the 2015 World Cup!
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 brings the crowds to see this masterpiece is of course the distorted skull which hogs practically fifty per cent of the foreground of the composition. From face on it appears no more than an elliptical ivory grey streak. Move to the extreme right of the canvas and look back from above (as the crowds of course do) and the streak miraculously forms itself into a perfectly rendered human skull. Quite what the ambassadors themselves made of this, we will never know. Holbein`s paintings were often full of symbolism and art commentators (including Januszczak in the BBC programme) have long debated the significance of this unique device. For sure the skull signifies mortality, reminding us that worldly trappings must all come to an end. But why the distorted shape? Is it some secret symbol? An ironic statement? Surely not - the image is so dominant it can hardly be described as `secret`. I prefer to think that Holbein, wishing - like many artists of that time - to include a skull to demonstrate the ineluctability of mortality, was simply bored with a regular rendition. How much more interesting to paint it as an anamorphic shape! And what an original way to demonstrate your artistic virtuosity. This is the painting of a man with a huge ego as well as an incredible facility of draughtsmanship.
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.