The real face of Anne Boleyn? by historical novelist Richard Masefield

Posted By on September 28, 2017

Thank you so much to historical novelist Richard Masefield for sharing his research and views with us today.

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By comparison with numerous ‘workshop’ versions, this rediscovered print from an apparently lost portrait of Anne Boleyn has every appearance of an authentic likeness, with its claim to represent Anne supported by Sir Roy Strong’s Tudor and Jacobean iconography and Eric Ives’s work in establishing a link between the portrait style and the gold and enamel image in the ‘Queen Elizabeth’s ring’, currently held by the Trustees of Chequers.1

Two copies of the print have so far emerged – one revealing the inscription near the top: ANNA BOLINA UXOR 2 HVIII, perhaps added at a later date, and the other, of lesser quality, showing a little more of the shadowed background to the portrait and of the sitter’s wide black sleeves.

It would not appear that the portrait is by Holbein. But in style and pose it does correspond closely to other contemporary female paintings by the German artist, Joos van Cleve, particularly his 1530 portrait of Eleanor, Queen of France (below).

Moreover, there are good reasons for supposing that Van Cleve had the opportunity to paint Anne Boleyn in 1532. His well attested portrait of Henry VIII has been dated for the early 1530s and it has been suggested that Van Cleve came to England for the commission. According to the Royal Collection Trust, this portrait ‘may have been painted to commemorate his visit to Calais in 1532’. In fact, it is more likely that the King sat for the artist in Calais or Boulogne during the visit itself; and it follows that a portrait of Anne Boleyn by Van Cleve could also have been undertaken while she was there with him. It is known that Van Cleve was summoned to work at the French court by François I in the early 1530s,2 and the 32 days Henry and Anne spent in France in the autumn of 1532 would have allowed ample time for preliminary sketches, if not for completed portraits.

The question of how a portrait of Anne Boleyn, sketched in 1532 and perhaps completed in time for her coronation in 1533, survived her disgrace and death in 1536, when other images of her were deliberately destroyed, might be explained by the fact that artists were frequently required to undertake multiple versions of royal portraits. Van Cleve was known for his ‘impressive studio organisation and collaboration’,3 and at least two versions of his portrait of Eleanor of France survive, wearing different costumes and jewellery.4

There are also two copies of Henry VIII’s portrait by Van Cleve, both of good quality, in the Royal Collection and that of Burghley House.

If Anne Boleyn did sit for Van Cleve in Calais, one would expect official versions of the portrait to feature jewellery obtained for her from Katherine of Aragon in time for the French visit;5 (e.g. the jewelled cross with pendant pearl in Katherine’s miniature by Lucas Horenbout, and worn successively by Anne in her portrait medal of 1534, Queen Jane in the Whitehall Mural and by Catherine Parr in another Horenbout miniature.) Moreover, if the one surviving original portrait of Anne features a symbolically initialled ‘B’ pendant – with B being for Boleyn, rather than A for Anne – it was very possibly ordered by her father, Thomas Boleyn, for his portrait gallery at Hever, where a later copy hangs today. In similar circumstances, Edward Seymour commissioned his own portrait of his sister Jane. Nor is it hard to imagine a plausible chain of ownership for such a survival – from Thomas Boleyn’s death in 1539 – through Anna of Cleves, who gained Hever Castle and its contents as a part of her divorce settlement in 15416 – to her executor, Henry Fitzalan, who had charge of her effects on Anna’s death in 1557 – to his son-in-law, John, Baron Lumley, who inherited Fitzalan’s paintings in 1580 and included a likeness of Anne Boleyn in his inventory of 1590.

It is known that Anna of Cleves personally occupied Hever Castle7 and would have been familiar with its paintings. If she had decided to sell a portrait of her disgraced predecessor by her countryman, Van Cleve – as a notable art collector, her friend Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel would have been an obvious buyer. Alternatively, if she’d left the painting for his disposal as her executor, he’d surely have taken the opportunity to acquire it, having known Anne Boleyn personally and accompanied her to Calais in 1532. On Henry Fitzalan’s death, his art collection was merged with that of his son-in-law and heir, John, Baron Lumley,8 which a decade later certainly did include a portrait of Anne Boleyn.

The fact that the portrait in the Lumley Inventory of 1590 is described as ‘full-length’9 would not have made it unusual (Queens Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr were both painted full-length) or incompatible with other commissions for Joos van Cleve’s studio. We now know that the Lumley portrait was cut down at a later date; and if the rediscovered head-and-shoulders print is amalgamated with another three-quarter-length female portrait by Van Cleve (as below), some idea can be gained of how such a painting might originally have appeared.

Evidence in the following century suggests that from the Lumley collection the ‘full length Anne Boleyn’ passed back into royal ownership. It is less likely that it was hanging in Nonsuch Palace when Lord Lumley ‘remitted’ that residence to Elizabeth I in 1592, than that it was still in Lumley’s ownership when he died without heirs in 1609. In which event it may well have been purchased for his ‘New Lybrary Gallery’ at St James’s Palace by James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry Frederic, who is known to have acquired the Lumley collection of books and manuscripts and was an avid collector of renaissance paintings.10

It is at about this time that copies of the likeness were made for inclusion in long gallery collections of kings and queens for numbers of aristocratic mansions – at least a dozen of which still survive, the widely reproduced National Portrait Gallery image among them. Many of these versions are clearly ‘copies of copies’, one or two of them quite crudely executed – and by comparison with the original, even the relatively sophisticated version purchased by Lord Astor for Hever Castle (below right) appears stiffly mechanical.

When Prince Henry Frederic died in 1612, his collection of books, manuscripts and paintings passed to his younger brother, Charles, to form a nucleus for his later collection; and the fact that this inheritance included the supposed Van Cleve portrait of Anne Boleyn is suggested by the information that Charles I commissioned the miniaturist, John Hoskins the Elder (1590-1665), to paint a miniature of Anne Boleyn ‘from an ancient original’,11 which by implication was in his ownership.

The miniature in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry still survives, and (if one ignores the deliberately lightened hair-colouring) there is nothing to suggest from a comparison, that the ‘Van Cleve portrait’ and the ‘ancient original’ are not one and the same – although, as in every other comparison, the superior quality of the ‘Van Cleve’ version is immediately evident.

The original painting re-appears in the records approximately 150 years after the Hoskins copy was made; as ‘Lot 33’ in a sale catalogue for 1773, which identifies it as the ‘full length Anne Boleyn’ from the Lumley collection, subsequently cut down ‘due to damage by fire when in the Temple’.12 The question of how it reached the Temple from the collection of Charles I is complicated by the Cromwellian Interregnum; and although it’s possible that the King gifted or loaned the portrait to one of the Temple Halls (as a precedent, Elizabeth I presented royal portraits to the Middle Temple Hall), it’s more likely to owe its existence there to the Protector himself. Following the King’s execution in 1649, Cromwell is known to have awarded paintings to favoured individuals and establishments;13 and as a onetime student of Lincoln’s Inn himself, might feasibly have favoured the Inns of Court with items from the Royal Collection. Such an award would doubtless have caused embarrassment at the time of the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II repossessed as much of his father’s collection as possible. But the portrait still appears to have been somewhere in the Inner Temple at the time of the Fire of London in 1666, which is likely to have been when it was damaged. The fire spared the Middle Temple Hall. But according to Pepys, ‘a good part of the Temple burned,’14 and it’s recorded that the Inner Temple was destroyed.

The antiquary and collector of manuscripts, prints and paintings, James West, was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1728,15 which one would suppose was when he saw the portrait of Anne Boleyn he was later to purchase – either in its fire-damaged state, or already cut down, repaired and re-framed. What is certain is that the picture remained in West’s collection until his death in 1772, when it was included that year in the sale of his paintings.

The purchaser of the painting at the West Sale in April 1772 remains unknown, and in the absence of an annotated catalogue must continue to do so. It’s recorded that Sir Joshua Reynolds bought paintings and that the collector Horace Walpole purchased many books and paintings from the West Sale for his new house at Strawberry Hill. But it’s apparent that a 1790 engraving of ‘Anne Bullen from the collection of the Hon. Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill’16 was taken from the Hoskins miniature, which was by then in his ownership, rather than from the larger original painting. So clearly, he wasn’t the buyer.

The above represents an attempt to plot a likely route to survival for the portrait through the first 240 years of its existence, although its whereabouts for the remaining 240 years is still a mystery.

It is further significant that its sitter’s features, unlike those of other ‘workshop’ copies, bear close comparison with the Holbein ‘Anne Boleyn’ drawing in the British Museum, which has been and is still disputed as a likeness. With the ‘Van Cleve’ portrait reversed and the two images set side by side, the lines of forehead, cheek and chin appear virtually identical. The long, narrow jawline – also evident in portraits of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, and of her Howard and Carey relatives – is accentuated in the painting by the (invisibly narrow) ribbon which holds the French crépine head-dress in place. The shapes of the nose, mouth and brows, a little flattered in the painting, are essentially similar; while something indefinable in the expression of the dark eyes establishes a common likeness.

For the present, the whereabouts of the original ‘Van Cleve’ portrait is obscure. Indeed, it may well be lost to us forever. But the re-discovery of this print as a contemporary likeness of Queen Anne Boleyn, and its confirmation of the British Museum’s Holbein sketch as another, must surely be of immediate historical significance.

Notes and Sources

  1. Prof. E W Ives, Anne Boleyn, 1986.
  2. Guicciardini. Dedcrittione di tutti I Paesi Bassi, 1567.
  3. Peter van den Brink, Alice Taatgen & Heinrich Becker, Joos van Cleve, March 2011.
  4. Kunthistorisches Museum, Vienna & Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.
  5. Calendar of Letters & State Papers between England & Spain, 1531-1533. p.525.
  6. Rymer’s Foedera, xiv. 709.
  7. Strickland, Vol 2, p 215: Letter from Anna of Cleves at Hever to Mary Tudor, Aug. 1553.
  8. King’s MSS xvii, A.ix.ff. British Museum, p.60-61.
  9. Roy Strong, Catalogue of Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, Anne Boleyn iconography, The Lumley Inventory.
  10. Roy Strong, Henry Prince of Wales and England’s Lost Renaissance. 1986.
  11. Early portrait miniatures in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, ed. C Holmes, 1917.
  12. Walpole Society, vi, 1918, p.21.
  13. The Sale of the Late King’s Goods, Dr Jerry Brotton, 2006.
  14. The Shorter Pepys, ed. Robert Latham, 1985.
  15. Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
  16. London Pub. Nov. 1st 1790, by E. Harding No. 132 Fleet Street.

Richard Masefield is a cousin of the poet, John Masefield, and a prizewinning author of historical fiction, with two Amazon Kindle bestsellers to his credit. His novels are recognised for their meticulous original research. To quote one of his recent blogs: ‘When I research my stories I am keen to share what I’ve learned with their readers – to explain for example how war horses were transported overseas to the crusades, how an entire underground city was excavated during the Great War, how nineteenth century tourists crossed the Alps on sledges, and why prostitutes of the period were frequently barren. I like to get the facts right, unpick the legends of the past and tell the truth as I perceive it.’
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