Making art in Tudor Britain: new research on paintings in the National Portrait Gallery.

Author:Cooper, Tarnya
Position:Critical essay



The history of painting in England between the death of Hans Holbein in 1543 and the arrival of Anthony Van Dyck in England in the early 1620s has traditionally been seen as fallow ground for art historians. Considered within a discipline that has until relatively recently tended to highlight the makers of art objects, Tudor painting was seen as less rewarding in that so few artists could be identified. According to a commentator in the 1970s English painting was 'primitive, provincial and peculiar in the extreme' and Elizabethan portraiture 'derivative, decayed and deformed', serving as simply 'an icon of the aristocracy'. (1) Yet from surviving documentary sources we know that Tudor artists painted a wide range of material, such as banners, set designs for ephemeral court events and decorative interiors painted on plaster, wood and canvas. The vast majority of this work, however, no longer survives. (2) The main body of the surviving painted imagery from the Tudor period is in the form of portraits painted on wooden panels. Consequently, portraiture represents much of the remaining material evidence for the production of painted imagery at this date, but there is still much to learn from it.

The National Portrait Gallery has the largest public collection of Tudor paintings, with around 170 painted images currently catalogued as dating from the 16th century. In May 2007 the Gallery began a major research project called Making Art in Tudor Britain. The project aims to explore the relationship between fabrication and function and includes detailed technical analysis of Tudor and Jacobean portraiture at the NPG. This article explores some findings from the first year of research and examines some of the ideas and themes deriving from a series of academic workshops, attended by art historians, historians, conservators and material scientists, which were held in 2007-8 on early Tudor artistic production. Abstracts of these papers can be found on the research section of the National Portrait Gallery website and will be referred to throughout this article. (3)

When Roy Strong published Tudor and Jacobean Portraits and the English Icon in 1969, few of the current tools of technical analysis were available to conservators and art historians. (4) The current project therefore represents an important opportunity to reassess Tudor portraiture in terms of attribution and dating, but more importantly to interpret these findings in the wider contexts of research on artistic production, the transmission of ideas and practices between native and foreign artists, and patronage and audiences. The first year of research focused on 25 pictures from the period 1500-50 including the Gallery's earliest picture, Henry VII (NPG 416, Pls 1, la), Catherine Parr (NPG 4451, Pls 2, 2a), Mary 1 (NPG 4861, Pls 6, 6a) and both the full-length and anamorphicEdward VI (NPG 5511, 1299, Pls 7, 7a, 7b, 8, 8a). The techniques employed included infra-red reflectography (to identity layers beneath the paint surface and underdrawing), dendrochronology (or tree-ring dating), paint sampling (to help identify pigments, layer structures and help with dating), x-ray and microscopic analysis. When used in unison, these tools of technical analysis can provide a comprehensive understanding of the techniques, methods of production, and later alterations to an individual picture. What is critical is how we interpret this material, and draw out its wider implications.


In the first year we were interested to explore the limitations and the potential of technical analysis on oil paintings and to look at how to draw on models from previous studies. The work from the Art in the Making' series of publications and exhibitions at the National Gallery, London (for example, Underdrawing In Italian Renaissance Painting, 2002) provides an extremely valuable model of methodology. At the same time, it is clear that some circumstances of production and forms of patronage in Tudor England (for example the contemporary proliferation of versions) are distinct from practices in continental Europe.


As the most significant public collection of Tudor painting, the Portrait Gallery's paintings are an important resource for understanding artistic practices at this period. The collection has been built up over a 150-year period and includes paintings that were originally produced for a wide spectrum of patrons and audiences. This results from an acquisition policy that has focused not on authorship or artistic merit as the single criteria, but on authentic life-time portraits of famous individuals who have contributed to British history. Consequently, the collection includes portraits produced directly for royal patrons, portraits painted for personal and private purposes, images that were once part of a larger group sets, institutional commissions and contemporary and later workshop versions of existing portrait types.

Despite the fact the Portrait Gallery collection is made up of only one genre of imagery, for the Tudor period at least, it has a more representative range of the quality of painted imagery produced in Britain than museums that have collected high-status works by known artists. Research on the collection allows us to explore patronage in the widest context and look at pictures produced both for the court and for middle elites in cities and towns. Few English artists were able to match visiting foreign painters or emigre artists in terms of technical expertise, and it is evident that more research on patronage is needed. But it is becoming clear that many British patrons (even those at court) were frequently less concerned about the aesthetic appearance and mimetic likeness of a painting and more interested in the documentary function of the image to serve as a record at a moment in time. Inevitably these observations raise interesting questions about the nature of the art object in 16th-century Britain. Much more research is needed, and part of the future work of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project will involve examining patron and audience expectations of painted imagery. (5)

And so how can technical analysis help to serve arthistorical discourse in this period? For example, what can the identification of underdrawing or the presence of a specific pigment actually tell us? The most obvious answer relates to dating and authorship and some of these results are discussed immediately below. Yet the tools of technical analysis also have the capacity to explore the creative process and reveal some of the original intentions of the artist, providing evidence about the original appearance, the use of presentational devices such as lost frames or covers, or changes in the colour values of pigments. Technical study can also help to assess such difficult questions as the degree of likeness, and although this area needs extremely careful interpretation, underdrawings can help to indicate the source of the composition and whether a carefully established pattern or detailed drawing has been employed. We can also learn about the availability of artists' materials and trade links in England. Critically, these details become most significant when considered in the context of patterns of production and reception. A collated body of data about Tudor painting promises to help us understand both the nature of English national style and the influence of emigre artists. It would also help us to explore questions concerning the commissioning process, patron-led initiatives and market demands. These issues are discussed below. (6)


Dating and...

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