The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (The Museums) are soon to present The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, the first major exhibition in the United States of portraiture and decorative arts of the Tudor courts. From King Henry VII’s usurpation of the English throne in 1485, to the death of his granddaughter Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the Tudor monarchs used art to establish power and legitimize their reigns.
The Legion of Honor’s presentation, the sole West Coast venue for the exhibition, will showcase a new exhibition design and chronological visual narrative, tracing the development of art across the reigns of the five Tudor monarchs and their individual styles.
“Thanks to Hollywood movies and TV dramas like The Tudors, many Americans have heard of King Henry VIII and his six wives, as well as the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I, but few may be aware of the distinctive art and visual propaganda that was central to the splendor and drama of the Tudor court,” said Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Now, in the first exhibition of its kind in the US, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England reunites scores of sumptuous paintings, precious jewels, rich tapestries and rare artifacts from collections around the world to bring the Tudor dynasty vividly to life–from the bloody founding of the dynasty in 1485 by Henry VII on the fields of Bosworth, to the final moments of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.”
The Legion of Honor’s presentation will include works from the museum’s collection, including a late 16th century panel painting. Newly attributed to artist Robert Peake by Fine Arts Museums conservators, this work recently underwent an extensive study in preparation for the exhibition. The sitter, previously unknown, has been definitively identified as Frances Walsingham—the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster—during a technical investigation. The digital reconstruction of the original cartellino inscription reads: “The Ladie Sidney daughter/ to Secretarye Walsingham.” Another museum collection piece that will be on view is a selection of decorated oak panels commissioned by Sir Edward Wotton, Treasurer of Calais and Privy Councillor to Edward VI, from his 16th century estate Boughton Place, Kent. Their classical ornament shows the influence of the Renaissance in rural England. Newly conserved, they will go on display for the first time since they were acquired by the Museums in the 1980s.
Other key works include tapestries commissioned or acquired by Henry VII and Henry VIII. Tapestries were the glory of the Tudor palaces, adorning the walls with vibrant color and the glint of gilt thread representing the power and prestige of the monarchy. They were the most expensive works of art created at this time and Henry VIII owned the enormous number of 2500 examples to furnish his many palaces. A Flemish tapestry depicting a scene from the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates the cosmopolitan taste and sophistication of Henry VIII’s court.
“The Tudors ushered in the English Renaissance, which drew inspiration from humanism, antiquity, and observation of the natural world,” said Martin Chapman, Curator in Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Unique to the presentation at the Legion of Honor are a portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger from the Palazzo Barberini in Rome and a portrait of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard from a private collection in England, works by two of the most significant painters patronized by the Tudors.”
While the Tudor period was marked by political and religious strife, the arts flourished for purposes of propaganda for the newly minted dynasty. With a chronological narrative, each section of the exhibition is devoted to highlighting each monarch’s reign and personality through an extraordinary range of sumptuous objects: Henry VII (reigned 1485–1509), his son Henry VIII (1509–1547), and Henry VIII’s three children Edward VI (r. 1547–15 53), Mary I (r. 1553–1558), and Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603). Works by Florentine sculptors, German painters, Flemish weavers, and European goldsmiths and printers from this period are presented alongside objects made by English artists and craftspeople, demonstrating both the cosmopolitanism of the English court and the emergence of distinctly English artistic styles by the end of the sixteenth century.
Henry VII founded the Tudor dynasty when he seized the crown, concluding the Wars of the Roses. The dynasty was strengthened through the cultivation of European alliances by means of marriage, including Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York (ending the rivalry between the royal houses of Lancaster and York), and after his death, his son Henry VIII’s marriage to Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon, and his two daughters’ marriages to the kings of Scotland and France. Throughout his reign Henry VII invested in art as a means of projecting kingly splendor. A velvet and cloth-of-gold clerical vestment, or cope, commissioned for his chapel, is among the most splendid textiles in the exhibition.
Henry VIII, who inherited a full treasury upon his succession, built numerous palaces and supported scholars and artists such as German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the most successful portraitists and designers of the sixteenth century. In response to the pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce from Katherine
of Aragon, Henry severed England’s ties to the Roman Catholic Church in 1534, establishing the Church of England with the monarch as its head. Key objects in the section of the exhibition devoted to Henry VIII’s reign include a Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour; the king’s armor garniture from the Royal Armoury at Greenwich; and a portrait bust of Bishop John Fisher, an influential English clergyman, by the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano.
The reign of boy-king Edward VI brought the development of more radical Protestantism in England, including the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. During the brief reign of Edward’s sister Mary I, England was reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church and more than 280 Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. Highlights of a section devoted to this time period include a Holbein portrait of Edward as a child and Henry’s longed-for heir, a portrait of Edward as king by William Scrots, and a portrait medal depicting Mary I in profile.