Thomas Cromwell and his Prayer-Book


Thomas Cromwell and his Prayer-Book

The famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger shown above is in fact a copy; the original is lost. There is another copy in the National Portrait Gallery in London, but it’s not as good. The original was painted around 1533, during the period covered by the novel Wolf Hall (which I reviewed yesterday) and is mentioned in the book. Holbein is known for having sometimes painted excessively flattering portraits – most notably of Anne of Cleves – but he doesn’t seem to have done that here. Cromwell is portrayed as dour, stern-faced and more than a little scary. He probably wanted people to fear him, so wouldn’t have minded this.

As well as the nature of the likeness, the composition is interesting. The subject seems to be squashed into the frame, and hemmed in by the table that juts out towards the viewer. He is also looking out towards the viewer’s left, though not simply staring into space; his eyes are definitely focussed on something. I’m not sure what all this is intended to convey, except that the table carries an ornate prayer-book (the Book of Hours) as if to say “look, here’s a symbol of how devout this man is”.

Interesting, just last year scholars published research that argues that the copy of the Hardouyn Hours which can be found in the Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, is precisely the book depicted on the table. If so, it’s a rare and perhaps unique example of an artefact seen in a Tudor painting that survives to this day.

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