Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon reunited

For the first time since their world-altering acrimonious divorce, King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon have been reunited in painted form in London’s National Portrait Gallery. The early portrait of Henry VIII, painted around 1520 by an unknown Anglo-Dutch artist, has been in the NPG since 1969. The one of Catherine, on the other hand, is a relatively new discovery.

In 2008, Gallery staff went to Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain survey. They noticed a portrait of a woman in 1520s dress hanging in private sitting room. The subject was purportedly Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, but the style of clothing and facial features were more reminiscent of Catherine of Aragon.

The Gallery borrowed the painting to analyze it further in their conservation lab. They found that the original portrait had been considerably altered. Under raking light (bright light held at an angle against a surface) the black background was revealed to be an overlay covering what had once been a patterned background painted to look like damask silk. An X-ray clearly indicated that the black overlay was also covering up the veil attached to the headdress. An ultra violet digital photograph showed that the face and chest had been considerably repainted in past restorations. The eyebrows were strengthened, the nose narrowed with shadows, white added to the eyes and a curvy brown line painted between the lips to separate them.

The analysis confirmed that this was not Catherine Parr, but rather a portrait of Catherine of Aragon from the 1520s. With that in mind, conservators worked painstakingly to remove the restorations. They removed the black overlay from the background to reveal the dark green damask pattern, a style very similar to the one in the background of the 1520 portrait of Henry VIII. They were also able to clean and remove the alterations to her face in stages. During the process they discovered diagonal lines of paint loss so strong that they would require the judicious application of translucent glazes to replace what was gone. From the strength of the paint loss and its focus on the face, experts believe the portrait was probably damaged deliberately.

The frame also received some tender loving care from Gallery conservators. It’s a rare thing, the original engaged oak frame that was constructed around the panel before the portrait was painted, a sort of combo easel/frame. Even rarer was the survival of some of the original decorative finish underneath layers of paint and gilding applied over the centuries. Conservators were able to recover much of the original bands of color painted blue with azurite and red with vermillion.

The finished product made a fine companion piece to the 1520s Henry VIII portrait. That’s not to say they were originally a paired set, but they’re from the same period, done in the same style and the same size. They’re examples of types of portraits that would have been copied and spread around, sometimes together, sometimes individually. If these two were ever together or at least paired with versions of each other, the last time was almost 500 years ago, before Catherine was banished from court in 1531.

Dr Charlotte Bolland, Project Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London says: “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 twenty four years and during that time their portraits would have been displayed together in this fashion, as king and queen of England.”

Henry and Catherine are reunited on the wall of Room 1. The exhibit is free to visitors and will run from January 25th to September 1st, 2013.

12 thoughts on “Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon reunited

  1. Thats not a bad one word summation of Henry. Like all the Tudors strapped for cash and trying to play in the big league on the cheap.

  2. I’d like to know how the painting was designated as Catharine Parr? I’m a Tudorphile & have never seen that painting as purporting to be of Parr. Was there a written designation? Is there any idea when the attribution was attached to the painting?

    Also, Mary I had many portraits of her mother made during her short reign. I’d be more inclined to think that Mary had the “defaced” portrait painted over in honor of her mother than that Henry did it on the cheap. Henry would have been more likely to throw daggers at it. With only 30 (ish) years from the original to Mary’s accession, carbon dating would be problematic, even if removed material had been conserved & tested.

    It’s amazing how closely the painting matches the 1520s Henry, isn’t it?

  3. Spendthrift more than cheap. He inherited a cash positive treasury and frittered it away on pennywhistles and moonpies, leaving Elizabeth a serious mess to clean up after. All this even after dissolving the monasteries (and not even handling that sensibly, selling off good income producing property) just so he could go to war.

    You can call Elizabeth I cheap, though I would say frugal, and frugal from absolute necessity. That, and her uncommon sense.

  4. heads up:

    “Venus’ birds with mournful tunes
    sing lullaby to my unrest,
    for so partaking of my wrongs,
    in my bosom build your nest.
    Lull – ah – bye …
    Love live loyal or I die.”

  5. I finally was able (using two different browsers) to put the before and after images side by side. I can scarcely tell a difference, except that the “after” image looks lighter in color and the face looks a bit more angry. I can’t see anything about the background.

  6. Well, it WAS a nasty divorce….
    I wonder if their ghosts are going to argue now that their portraits are side-by-side??

  7. About time as well. Katherine and Henry should never have been divorced in the first place as their marriage was lawful and they were actually perfectly matched in every way. I do not know of any joint portraits that they had done, but it is good to see Henry and Katherine as they were at their best; early to mid way through their 24 year marriage. Lawful or not, their marriage lasted for more than half of Henry’s adult life and longer than most legal ones do today. She was intelligent, fun loving, enjoyed dancing and hunting and shared many of these with Henry. Unfortunately, she and Henry had a sad fertility record, something of a tragic reality in Henry’s mind and he could not concede that a woman could rule England. He needed a son. Katherine had given Henry a living son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall, who died after 56 days in January 1511. That is actually more than Anne Boleyn achieved, having one daughter, two miscarriages and at least one stillborn son. Some even believe she had phantom pregnancies and lied to the King. Katherine is known to have suffered from three miscarriages, two live births that died shortly afterwards and at least one still birth. Mary was their only living child who survived.

    But having failed in her duty to give Henry a son, Katherine was cruelly sidelined, although she and Henry were entirely well matched. She even got on much better with him than any of his later wives and he complained that she never contradicted him or moaned at him as Anne did. He really did not know what he was letting himself in for with Anne Boleyn, the woman he was to change England for, forever.

    Great to see the portraits side by side where they belong. Pity Henry did not see sense during his life and remain with his best wife.

  8. Henry spent the money on a number of things, many not so sensible, but he also spent it on our defense, ships, shipyards, navel collages, forts, sea defenses that were actually used in World War II. Elizabeth had the raw materials to spend on ships later on. But she would not have if it had not been for her father. He may also have left the treasury without money, but so did she! She also spent money on wild entertainments so she was not that frugal. The case was made worse as the naval defenses were neglected by Eward and his council. Even Mary spent money on our navy!

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