Flattering portrait of Henry VIII helps Sotheby’s dominate Old Master auctions

Work from Hans Holbein’s studio was a highlight of London’s sale season


How do you paint an irascible, overweight king with a tendency to chop people’s heads off, without making him look too irascible and overweight (thus safeguarding your head)? If you’re Hans Holbein the Younger, you make a virtue of the vast bulk before you, and turn corpulence into an intimidating presence. Holbein’s original full-length portrait of Henry VIII (a now lost mural from around 1536) showed the king almost as wide as he was tall, and was said to be so impressive that visitors ‘trembled before it’.

But as Henry got older, Holbein’s trick became harder to pull off. A highlight of this week’s Old Master sales season in London was a portrait attributed to Holbein’s workshop dated 1542, and known in a number of versions. By then, Henry was larger than ever, walked with the aid of a staff, and in these later portraits wears a capacious fur-lined overcoat, as if permanently dressed against the cold. Consequently, despite Holbein’s skill (or that of his mystery assistants, of whom there is no record) the ageing Henry looks not like a king, but a flamboyant resident of some pricey Tudor retirement home.

The portrait sold for £680,000 hammer price (£821,000 with premium, est £800,000-£1.2m). This was marginally less than a comparable, but not as fine, version from Castle Howard, which Sotheby’s sold in the summer for £965,000 (with premium).

Sotheby’s 9 December evening sale total was yet below expectations at £19.3m (£22.6m with premium, estimate £21.8m-£32.6m) while at Christie’s the previous evening, the total was a very disappointing £5.4m (£6.5m with premium, estimate £12.7m-£19.3m).

• A full review of London’s Old Master auctions, will be in the January edition of The Art Newspaper