Making Art in Tudor Britain: New Research on Paintings in the National Portrait Gallery

By Cooper, Tarnya | British Art Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Making Art in Tudor Britain: New Research on Paintings in the National Portrait Gallery


Cooper, Tarnya, British Art Journal


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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.

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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. …

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