Magazine article The Spectator

Wake or Celebration?

Magazine article The Spectator

Wake or Celebration?

Article excerpt

This, or possibly next, year marks the 500th anniversary of Hans Holbein's birth. It isn't quite clear whether he was born in 1497 or 1498, an ambiguity quite common with artists born so long ago. Either way, one would have thought that a big exhibition was in order -- given Holbein's key position in English art and history. To date, however, the best we have managed is one of the National Gallery's pedagogic little exhibitions: Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors (sponsored by Esso), which looks in detail at the physical and symbolic construction of one great picture.

Viewed as a Holbein show this is not enough, but something to be going on with. Considered as a vindication of the National Gallery's cleaning policy, it has been denounced by my colleague Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph as 'outrageous': 'A show which brazenly documents the way in which this famous and loved painting has been destroyed by its recent cleaning.' I half agree, and if Dorment is even partly right this show is more of a wake than a quincentenary celebration.

`The Ambassadors' is Holbein's largest and most ambitious surviving work as a portraitist - and also a strikingly peculiar painting. There are several mysteries about it, none of which is entirely cleared up by this exhibition or the accompanying book. In the 19th century it was unknown who the subjects were, but that problem has been solved to general satisfaction. They are two young French diplomats, Jean de Dinteville, on the left, and the Bishop of Lavaur, Georges de Selve. Dinteville did several spells as French ambassador to Henry VIII, the first in 1533, during which - like many Frenchmen exiled to Angleterre - he was browned off. 'I am,' he wrote, `the most melancholy, weary and wearisome ambassador that ever was.'

Dinteville was cheered up, it seems, only by the advent of de Selve, perhaps on another secret diplomatic mission: `Monsieur de Lavaur did me the honour of coming to see me, which was no small pleasure to me.' His reaction to this visit, it seems, was to commission a large, elaborate and presumably expensive portrait of the two of them from Holbein, over two square metres in size, with a skull in violent perspectival distortion spread across the bottom of it and an array of musical, astronomical, geographical and horological instruments in the middle.

It seems a little odd. But the Dintevilles were a rum lot, with distinctly oddball ideas about portraiture. There were four brothers, one of whom was accused of poisoning the dauphin a few years later - a charge which did not stick. Subsequently, another fled from court accused of sodomy. In their chateau at Polisy, there was a group portrait of the Dintevilles, perhaps the pendant of `The Ambassadors', as Moses, Aaron and onlookers before the Pharaoh. Later in life, Jean de Dinteville had himself painted as St George -- quite why no one knows - in a jolly mannerist picture in the exhibition.

The official explanation is that the splendid clutter of instruments perhaps allude to the diplomatic troubles of the Reformation - the world out of joint, the lute unstringed. The scull is an obvious reference to mortality, the crucifix behind the curtain to salvation. Maybe. But why have such a complex joint portrait painted with a fellow diplomat whose path one crossed on a duff posting to London? Were they better friends than the records show? (In view of that charge of sodomy against the family, it is tempting, though wildly unscholarly, to imagine that they might have had more in common than a shared interest in diplomacy. …

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