Portraits of King Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon reunited
LONDON – “Henry and Catherine Reunited” places portraits of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon together for the first time in nearly 500 years. The pictures will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery beginning Friday, Jan. 25.
The rare early portrait of Catherine of Aragon has been placed on loan from Lambeth Palace and has undergone an extensive program of research and conservation treatment.
During a research visit to Lambeth Palace staff from the National Portrait Gallery’s conservation and curatorial department noticed a portrait hanging in a private sitting room. The portrait depicted a woman in costume that dated from the 1520s to 1530s. The sitter had previously been identified as Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. However, the facial features and costume shared more similarities with known works depicting Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. The other striking element of the piece was its rare original engaged frame (a frame that was constructed around the panel support for the portrait before it was painted).
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners allowed the gallery to borrow the portrait for further research, including technical analysis. Examination of the painting in raking light indicated that it originally had a patterned background. Further analysis showed that it would be possible to remove the black over paint from the background to reveal the original green finish, which imitates damask silk. The National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of King Henry VIII circa 1520 shares a similar brocade background. An X-ray indicated a veil attached to Catherine’s headdress and it became evident that a large amount of over painting had altered the characterization of the sitter’s face. This research confirmed the reidentification of the portrait as Catherine of Aragon, and also underpinned the subsequent conservation treatment of the painting.
Examination of the frame revealed that elements of the original decorative finish survived beneath layers of later paint and gilding. The discovery of the original Tudor finish is a rare find. It combines oil gilding with colored bands of blue and red, which were painted with the pigments azurite and vermillion. A large proportion of the original finish was recovered enabling the National Portrait Gallery’s conservation team to reconstruct the areas of loss and damage. The restored color scheme adds to the aesthetic reading of the painting.
The portrait was compared with the National Portrait Gallery’s painting of Henry VIII from the same period, which is a similar composition. While not suggesting the works originally formed a pair, the costume dates them to the same period and the works are of the same scale. It is likely that both are examples of the type of portraits of the king and queen that would have been produced in multiple versions, some of which would have been paired in this way.
This research was undertaken as part of “Making Art in Tudor Britain,” a project that has used scientific techniques to analyze the portraits in the display to increase the understanding of the working practices of Tudor artists.
“It is wonderful to have the opportunity to display this important early portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the Gallery. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were married for nearly 24 years and during that time their portraits would have been displayed together in this fashion, as king and queen of England,” Dr. Charlotte Bolland, project curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, said in a statement.
For more information log on to the National Portrait Gallery website: www.npg.org.uk .
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