Tudor and Stuart portraiture, Tate Britain

The Tudor period was one of unusual isolation from European trends for England. With the virtual extinction of religious painting at the Reformation, and little interest in classical mythology until the very end of the period, the portrait was the most important form of painting for all the artists of the Tudor court, and the only one to have survived in any numbers. Portraiture ranged from the informal miniature, almost invariably painted from life in the course of a few days and intended for private contemplation, to the later large-scale portraits of Elizabeth I such as the Rainbow Portrait, filled with symbolic iconography in dress, jewels, background, and inscription.

Two portraiture traditions had arisen in the Tudor court since the days of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. The portrait miniature developed from the illuminated manuscript tradition. These small personal images were almost invariably painted from life over the space of a few days in watercolours on vellum stiffened by being glued to a playing card. Panel paintings in oils on prepared wood surfaces were based on preparatory drawings and were usually executed at life size, as were oil paintings on canvas.

Far the most impressive models available to English portraitists were the many portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, the outstanding Northern portraitist of the first half of the century, who had made two lengthy visits to England and been Henry VIII’s court artist. Holbein had accustomed the English court to the full-length life-size portrait, although none of his originals now survive. His great dynastic mural at Whitehall Palace, destroyed in 1698, and perhaps other original large portraits, would have been familiar to Elizabethan artists.

Much energy was also expended on decorative painting of fixtures and fittings, often of a very temporary nature. In theory the “Serjeant Painters” of the King, a lower rank of painter, did most of this, probably to the designs of the more elevated “King’s Painters” (or Queen’s), but it is clear that they too spent time on this, as did court artists all over Europe. There was also the Master of the Revels, whose Office was responsible for festivals and tournaments, and no doubt called upon the artists and Serjeant Painters for assistance.

Tate Britain

Tate Britain is an executive non-departmental public body and an exempt charity. Its mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art

Tate Britain is the national gallery of British art from 1500 to the present day As such, it is the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world.

The main display spaces show the permanent collection of historic British art, as well as contemporary work It has rooms dedicated to works by one artist.

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