Six wives…and 2,500 tapestries—the extraordinary collection of Henry VIII

Henry VIII is arguably the most memorable of English kings. Thanks to the portraits and sketches of Hans Holbein the Younger, we recognise his visual image, along with those of his wives and important courtiers (Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell) in a way that we do not recognise the personalities of any earlier or later reign. Looking at those portraits we can convince ourselves not only that we know these people, but that we have a uniquely privileged insight into their world. Thomas Campbell’s magnificent new study of the reign suggests just how misleading that illusion can be.

As he tactfully reminds us, the portraits which are now our principal point of entry into the visual culture of the Tudor court were seen at the time as of only secondary importance, rarely valuable enough to record in any detail in wills and inventories, and useful primarily for pragmatic purposes, whether as mementos of absent friends or tools of the international marriage trade. What mattered most to Henry and his peers were not their paintings but their tapestries; on these they lavished considerable care and spent often colossal sums of money. At his death Henry owned a collection of almost 2,500 items, ranging in size from single images measuring a few square feet to huge sets of many hundreds of square yards, the most expensive costing as much as a battleship.

Dr Campbell’s book, the latest of a sumptuous three-volume series on the tapestries of the Renaissance and Baroque periods published by Yale University Press and drawing on two decades of scholarly and practical experience, explains why Tudor attitudes to the two art forms were so different from our own. Unlike the often quite small portraits that were generally kept in galleries or chambers, accessible to only a few selected guests, and left covered when not being viewed, the often massive figurative tapestries that adorned the public rooms of a palace were visible continuously. By their very scale and grandeur, and the costliness of the gold thread used in the finest examples, they served as a graphic demonstration of their owners’ wealth, magnificence and taste. And they might also perform more subtle, political functions, acting as tools of “suggestion” (a word Dr Campbell wisely favours over the more anachronistic and blunt term “propaganda”) whether aimed “outwards” to assert supposedly admirable qualities in the king or aspects of his authority to an audience of courtiers and foreign visitors, or “inwards” as reflective aides-mémoire for the sovereign himself. Such usage reflected the advice offered by the scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot in his influential educational manual The Book Named the Governor (1531), that the hall and chambers of a “man of honour” should be decorated with “arras [tapestries], painted tables and images containing histories [narrative images], wherein is represented some monument of virtue cunningly wrought…whereby other men in beholding them might be instructed, or at least ways to virtue persuaded.”

We can, Dr Campbell argues, detect examples of both the assertive and the reflective uses of “suggestion” among the tapestries commissioned or purchased by Henry VIII. Although many of the sets of figurative work recorded in the great inventory drawn up after the King’s death in 1547 would have been inherited from his royal forebears or seized wholesale from the monastic houses dissolved in the later 1530s or among the goods of fallen ministers, enough evidence survives of works commissioned by the King himself (and largely produced in the low countries) to suggest both his aesthetic preferences and his political aims. Thus, alongside the generic hunting and hawking scenes that furnished many a palace room, and the moralising schema that reflected the sovereign’s desire to present a virtuous image to the world, Henry increasingly chose biblical themes to adorn his great rooms of state, linking his break with Rome and claim to be Supreme Head of the Church of England with the acts of patriarchs such as Abraham, Joshua and David, leaders of the chosen people against their heathen foes. Dr Campbell offers detailed, evocative accounts of each of the surviving sets of biblical images (including the magnificent Abraham sequence still in situ in the great hall of Hampton Court Palace), not only demonstrating how and when they were probably acquired for royal use, but suggesting how they might have been interpreted by contemporary viewers.

Dr Campbell’s book is thus more than simply a comprehensive scholarly account of the tapestries of Henry’s reign, their production and dissemination, lavishly illustrated with colour and monochrome illustrations; it is a credible attempt to integrate the story of the figurative arts into the wider history of the reign as a whole. As such it is a rare and admirable achievement.

Greg Walker

Masson Professor of English Literature, University of Edinburgh

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