Saturday, 21 July 2012

Encounters: Hilary Mantel at the National Gallery

It seems that the National Gallery is busily knitting threads between all the different London arts. There is the incredible Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 exhibition which is the product of a successful collaboration between the Royal Ballet, contemporary artists, poets, composers and choreographers. In addition to this, the Gallery has also been encouraging modern writers to consider how they look at and write about art in 'Encounters: Writers on Writing about Art'. The first was by Edmund de Waal, the second (which I missed) was James Elkins and the final one last night was Hilary Mantel.

Where de Waal used modern, impressionist art to provide a psychological insight into his family history, Hilary Mantel was haunted  by the lush materiality of Holbein's 'The Ambassadors'. It was an image that she and her husband took everywhere; a constant link with home and always the first thing on the wall in a new place. She liked to think of Jean de Dinteville and his friend Georges de Selve looking down at sights that they couldn't have possibly imagined and she was inspired by their vital presence and worldly sophistication.

According to Mantel, despite its outward worldliness, religion is central to the picture. Educated by Irish nuns, she drew on early childhood memories for an emotional religious connection. This helped her grasp the two realities of Catholicism; comparing the sophisticated Jesuit and simple superstitious versions, the literal and metaphorical, enabling her to literally see the skull beneath the skin. This emotion is important - for the men in the painting their faith was worth dying for and it is this intensity of religious experience that is the key to understanding their world.

For us, there is no fear of eternal damnation and hellfire, we do not live with the pervasive atmosphere of certain punishment for our sins. Conversely this means we lack their hope and the exquisite tension between the body and spirit; a short earthly time compared to an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell. Although Holbein was a master at holding up a mirror to his world, recreating a perfect facsimile of fur, fabric, metal, the material things that surrounded him, he could be a religious artist. For instance The Body of Christ in the Tomb (1521-2). There is no glory here, just a debased god, demonstrating clear post mortem changes. Holbein is showing us the reality of bodily decay which is going to be supernaturally overcome in the miracle of Resurrection.

Ralph Sadler
She stressed that she is not an art historian and was not going to talk about the various interpretations. However she pointed out that the 1530s was a time of great religious disharmony and the Reformation meant that faith was being turn upside down. The date that the quadrant and cylinder sundial show is 11th April 1533, Good Friday which is the darkest point of the Christian year. A time between death and life, when the breath is held, and the congregation maintain hope and fear what is going to happen next.

She said that the painting is perfect fodder for endless theories but she rejected the esoteric and concentrated on the psychological profiles of Holbein's portraits. She admitted it was disappointing when a character in her books was not depicted and lived in hope that paintings would be found whilst she was writing. The image of Ralph Sadler, one her important was instrumental in putting a face to a name and she feels Holbein's paintings are entirely persuasive in their depictions.

She then spent time talking about the ambassadors; two young but highly experienced statesmen, sent to a miserable London posting, their salaries paid late - if at all, suffering abuse and threatened by all around them especially when international relations were strained. It is a running joke in her books that the melancholy de Dinteville repeatedly complained about being in England because of the cold, wet weather and he wore many layers of padded clothing 'to keep out the summer weather'.

Henry's foreign policy was labyrinthine and trod a careful path between the political might of the French and Holy Roman Empire. As a cultural, diplomatic and military backwater England was very much isolated and so it was essential that Henry had the support of one, or both of these superpowers because he felt that if France and the Empire moved together, England could be swallowed. With the benefit of hindsight this wasn't going to happen because both powers had much more important things to worry about. [Go and read a book on it!]

Mantel then moved on to her novels and provided a few readings from both. Before each excerpt she gave a very brief historical/narrative context and concentrated on parts in which these ambassadors were featured. The first was a visit to the newly refurbished Tower of London which has traditionally been the queen's residence before her coronation. The second was during Anne's coronation feast, where de Dinteville compared her to a peasant woman due to her ability to stay on her feet for so long whilst heavily pregnant. The only reason we know so much about Anne's coronation is through the ambassador's letters to King Francis so it's an important historical record.

The last days of Anne were also documented and the 'change of regime' was obviously of great interest to the rest of Europe. As we know, though the break with Rome not sudden the characters involved didn't know it was going to be irreversible. Henry was capricious and devious and his court reflected the man well; conservative in doctrine and yet a snake pit of religious, social, political and sexual tensions. The French didn't understand why the King had settled on 'the Seymour person', to them, another unimportant woman.

Mantel concluded by saying that Holbein and his pictures were a huge inspiration and finished by talking about the third book in her trilogy. For this later period she is studying the most famous image of the Henrician reign; the virile determined king, standing immense, hand on hips, legs firmly planted in history, time and space. He is the most recognisable man in history. As an author she is looking behind Holbein's draperies to find the King's squirming neurosis and hidden deficiencies. For her, this artist depicts knowledge and the transient glories on the way to eternity.


Hilary Mantel recommended two books on the period
Mary F. S. Hervey's Holbein's Ambassadors: The Picture and the Men (1900)
JD North's The Ambassadors' Secret (2002)

Plus I like John Guy's Tudor England (1990) and Eric Ives's biography of Anne Boleyn (1986)


  1. Damn, wish I had been there!

    As you well know, Holbein's Ambassadors is of enormous interest to me and like Hilary, I have an image of the boys in my office (two actually!), as well as postcards, magnets and all manner of paraphernalia! I love the idea that she took them with her on her travels, as in essence this is exactly what they boys were about!

    Referring to Hilary's comments on the Reformation in particular, the hymn book is commonly believed to refer to the religious strife in Europe. Also it's important to remember that the crucifix wasn't rediscovered until the painting was cleaned at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, both subjects weren't agreed upon until the end of the 19th century...

    Ambassadors remains an amazing painting. Whilst some theories may seem unfeasibly speculative, we both know from our work on other allegorical paintings that just because our generation remembers the girl with the tennis ball in her pants, previous generations were well-versed in interpreting symbolism and artistic intent.

    Thanks for writing it up - I haven't read Hilary's books yet, but hey, I guess the beach and my iPad beckon! xxx @bebejax

  2. How funny, misread that! I thought Hilary had written something on Holbein.

    I have read the Hervey and the North - I'd also recommend the following for anyone really interested in the painting...

    Ainsworth, Maryan, ‘“Paternes for Physioneamyes”: Holbein’s Portraiture Reconsidered’, Burlington Magazine, 1132 (1990), 173-86.
    Aked, C. K., ‘The Ambassadors’, Antiquarian Horology, Winter (1976), 173-86.
    Anson, E. Mary, ‘Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”’, The Listener, 26 January 1961.
    Baltrusaitis, Jurgis, trans. Walter, J. Strachan, Anamorphic Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977), pp. 91-114
    Baynes-Cope, A. David, ‘The Investigation of a Group of Globes’, Imago Mundi, 33 (1981), 9-20.
    Buck, Stephanie and Jochen Sander, Hans Holbein the Younger, Painter at the Court of Henry VIII, book published to accompany the exhibition Hans Holbein 1497/98 -1543. The Mauritshuis, The Hague. 16 August – 16 November 2003. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
    Charlton, Kenneth, ‘Holbein’s “Ambassadors” and Sixteenth Century Education’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 21 (1960), 99-109.
    Dekker, Elly and Kristen Lippencott: ‘The Scientific Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors: A Re-Examination’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 62 (1999), 93-125.
    Drinkwater, Peter I., The Sundials of Nicholaus Kratzer (Shipton-on-Stour: Published by the author, 1993).
    Foister, Susan, Ashok Roy and Martin Wyld, Making and Meaning: Holbein’s Ambassadors (London: The National Gallery, 1997).
    Foster, Richard, '"The Ambassadors": Standing on Shifting Ground', The Listener, 6 November 1986, 12-13.
    Foster, Richard, Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey (London: Butler & Tanner, 1991).
    Grossman, F., ‘Holbein Studies’, The Burlington Magazine 93 (1951), 111-114.
    Hake, Henry M., ‘The English Historic Portrait: Document and Myth’, Proceedings of the British Academy 29 (1943), 136-138.
    Hans Holbein: Paintings, Prints, and Reception, (Studies in the History of Art: Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Symposium Papers), ed. Mark Roskill and John Oliver Hand (Washington: National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2001).
    Holman, Thomas S., ‘Holbein’s Portraits of the Steelyard Merchants: An Investigation’, Metropolitan Museum Journal, 14, (New York, 1980), 139-59.

  3. Cont'd...

    Jardine, Lisa, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, (New York and London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 302-06 and 425-36.
    Kemp, Martin, The Science of Art: optical themes in western art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (London and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).
    Michael, Erika, Hans Holbein the Younger: A Guide to Research (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997).
    North, John, The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance (London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2002).
    Pächt, Otto, ‘Holbein and Kratzer as Collaborators’, Burlington Magazine, 84 (1994), 134-39.
    Parshall, Peter, ‘Some Visual Paradoxes in Northern Renaissance Art’, Wascana Review (Renaissance Issue), (Spring, 1974), 97-104.
    Piper, David, ‘Holbein’s Ambassadors’, The Listener, 12 January 1961, 68-70.
    Ramussen, Mary, ‘The Case of the Flutes in Holbein’s The Ambassadors’, Early Music (February, 1995), 114-23.
    Samuel, E. R., ‘Death in a Glass: A New View of Holbein’s Ambassadors’, Burlington Magazine, 115 (1963), 436-41.
    Schneider, Norbert, 'Hans Holbein the Younger: The French Ambassadors to the English Court', in The Art of the Portrait, (Cologne, 1992), pp.118-21.
    Smith, Alistair, 'The Ambassadors', The Antique Collector, No. 9, (November, 1974), 42-45.
    Stebbins, F. A., ‘The Astronomical Instruments in Holbein’s Ambassadors’. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 56 (1962), 45-52.
    Villiers, G. H., Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors in the National Gallery, London. The Gallery Books 18, (London: P. Lund Humphries & Co., 1947).
    Wallis, Helen, 'Globes in England up to 1660', The Geographical Magazine, 35, No. 5, (September, 1962), 267-79.
    Watson, F. J. B., Burlington Magazine, 106 (1964), 135-6.
    Wilson, K. J., ‘More and Holbein: The Imagination of Death’, Sixteenth Century Journal 7 (April 1976), 51-58.
    Wind, Edgar, ‘Studies in Allegorical Portraiture I’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, I (1937), 138-62.
    Wood, Christopher, ‘”Curious Pictures” and the Art of Description’, Word & Image, II/4, (1995), 332-52.
    Wyld, Martin, ‘The Restoration History of Holbein’s Ambassadors’, National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 19 (1998), pp. 4-25.
    Zwingenberger, Jeanette, The Shadow of Death in the Work of Hans Holbein the Younger (Bournemouth: Parkston, 1999).

  4. Thank you, I am a mere amateur on this piece. Enjoyed slipping back into the renaissance though :)