Sotheby’s Holbein will not be included in Tate show

Neither will the National Gallery’s Ambassadors which was judged too fragile to travel across London


A notable absentee from the “Holbein in England” show, which opens at Tate Britain on 28 September, will be the recently-attributed portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt. It comes up for sale at Sotheby’s on 5 July, with an estimate of £2m-3m. No request for a loan has been made to Sotheby’s or the seller, antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs.

Sotheby’s dates the circular painting to 1539-42 and describes it as “the only surviving portrait from Holbein’s English period remaining in private hands.” The tondo surfaced at Christie’s in 1974, when it was catalogued as by an anonymous British School artist, and was purchased by Mr Gibbs for £2,800.

Sir Roy Strong, a former director of the National Portrait Gallery and distinguished Holbein specialist, later studied the work and concluded it was by Holbein. His detailed findings written after infra-red reflectography and removal of overpaint were published last March in Apollo magazine.

All those involved in the Tate show are being coy about explaining why the picture has not been requested, but considering the rarity of Holbein’s English works (and the tondo’s relatively small size, requiring little display space), there seem to be only two possibilities. Perhaps Tate and its guest curator, Dr Susan Foister, want to avoid doing anything which might increase the financial value of the panel when it comes up for auction. But a more likely explanation is that Dr Foister is not entirely convinced that the work is indeed by Holbein.

The painting is also conspicuous in its absence in Dr Foister’s definitive study on Holbein and England, published by Yale University Press in May last year. It is surprising that it was not even mentioned, considering that the picture had been recorded as by the master in Sir Roy Strong’s 1980 Holbein catalogue.

Despite the veil of discretion, there is no evidence that Dr Foister, now regarded as the world’s leading specialist on Holbein and England, is convinced by the attribution published in the Sotheby’s catalogue.

Diplomatic difficulties

Tate’s “Holbein in England” exhibition also threw up another sensitive issue, since Dr Foister is based at the National Gallery, home of The Ambassadors, the greatest of Holbein’s English paintings. This was the most important loan request submitted by Tate, but the key question was whether the panel painting was safe to travel across London, on conservation grounds. Tate Britain is less than a mile away, but even minor changes in temperature and humidity might be damaging.

Tate submitted a loan request to the National Gallery, and this came up for consideration on 5 May 2005. The National Gallery trustees concluded: “The Ambassadors would undoubtedly play a key role in the exhibition, as Holbein’s only surviving large-scale English masterpiece. However, its fragility means we cannot recommend the loan. It is one of the most fragile panels in the collection.”

There was then an appeal by Tate, and the issue went before the National Gallery trustees again, on 7 October: “With deep regret the Board upheld its decision not to lend Holbein’s The Ambassadors to Tate in view of the picture’s extremely fragile condition, but suggested that the gallery collaborate with Tate in promoting the exhibition at Millbank and encouraging visitors to the exhibition to come and see the picture in Trafalgar Square.”

This final decision was then reported back to Tate trustees on 16 November last year: “[Tate] trustees noted with regret that the National Gallery has declined Tate’s loan request for The Ambassadors, on the advice of their Head of Conservation who does think that the picture could not be safely lent under any circumstances. Numerous discussions have taken place between the two museums but they have now ended negotiations on this matter.”

The Ambassadors, which is very fragile, is on ten oak panels and it was most recently conserved in 1996.

Henry VIII

Despite the absence of The Ambassadors, Tate has secured what is, at least in historical terms, Holbein’s most important smaller work, the only surviving portrait of Henry VIII done from life. This is now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, following its sale by Lord Spencer from Althorp in 1934. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum was extremely generous in lending this icon, even more so because it has also sent The Lock to the current Constable show at Tate Britain (until 28 August).

The Portrait of Henry VIII will be reunited, for the first time ever, with the portraits of the king’s third wife, Jane Seymour (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and their son Edward (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Another Tate coup was securing the Portrait of Erasmus from the Louvre, a loan request which was submitted at a fairly late stage. This will be shown alongside the larger portrait on loan from a “private collector”, who is the Earl of Radnor.

“Holbein in England”, which covers the years 1526-28 and 1532-43, follows a complementary exhibition on “Holbein: the Basel Years”, at Basel’s Kunstmuseum, which closes on 2 July (an English edition of the catalogue is published by Prestel).