Historical figures live in the moment at UK exhibition
Time can be such a curious, slippery thing. John Godsalve worked at the court of Henry VIII. A protégé of the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, he enjoyed a successful career, culminating with a knighthood at Edward VI’s coronation in 1547. He also had the good fortune to sit for a likeness by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Here it is, at the start of The Encounter, a new exhibition of 48 Renaissance and Baroque Old Master drawings at the National Portrait Gallery. And, my goodness, it is astounding.
Wearing a fur-lined gown and a high-status black bonnet, Godsalve stares straight at us. It seems as if his eyes have swivelled in our direction only a split-second earlier. At a stroke, once we have connected with Godsalve’s gaze, the nearly 500 years since Holbein made this drawing dissolve into nothing. Poof ! The gulf of half a millennium is gone.
What strange alchemy — or black magic — was capable of such a feat? Certainly, it wasn’t Godsalve’s appointment to Henry VIII’s improbably named Office of the Common Meter of Precious Tissues that secured him immortality, or even his subsequent knighthood. It was Holbein’s art. Still, how did he do it?
Certain qualities of the portrait provide some answers, perhaps. Above all, of course, the sheer brilliance of Holbein’s line could mimic the contours of Godsalve’s face perfectly. The artful presence of naturalistic details, such as the patchy stubble, augment the impression that Holbein was offering up reality, rather than its imitation. And the trick of Godsalve’s eyes, which turn away from the axis of his face, summon an atmosphere of spontaneity and a sense of urgency.
Elsewhere, there are seven more portraits by Holbein — all on loan, like Godsalve’s, from the Royal Collection. Annotated to record details of the sitters’ garments, they are studies for finished oil paintings. Often, the fabric is rendered swiftly, with just a few vigorous strokes of ink or chalk. In theory, one could argue, this should weaken the impression of reality, since these summarily sketched costumes do not “look” like real clothes. Yet the opposite is the case. The provisional quality of the mark-making imbues the whole with a general air of animation. It also offsets the more subtle and refined exe- cution of the face, focusing attention on the most important part.
Meanwhile, Holbein’s observation extends beyond the realm of appearances, into the elusive, nuanced sphere of psychology. A pretty but tentative 20-year-old, perhaps a lady-in-waiting, looks hesitantly to one side. Next to her, an icily attractive peer provides a much more assertive presence: a protoCruella de Vil with a death-ray stare. A bearded man in a black cap looks cautious and pompous; a younger gentleman, with devastating blue eyes, is all ruthless ambition.
I have dwelled for so long upon these drawings, despite their familiarity, because they amount to a significant proportion of the exhibition, which showcases rarely seen holdings from 11 different collections. Aside from The Queen, the principal lenders are the British Museum and trustees of Chatsworth. Moreover, Holbein’s Godsalve kicks off the show because it is emblematic of the artwork that the curators wish to highlight: drawings characterised by a striking sense of immediacy, emanating the frisson of an “encounter” between artist and sitter.
Given the somewhat amorphous nature of the concept behind the exhibition — this is not a show devoted to a single master, country, or even period — its shape is, admittedly, a little loose. After Godsalve, a short section illuminates how Renaissance and Baroque artists learned the craft of drawing, often working from pattern or model books with stock motifs on vellum. I would have dispensed with this — it makes for an unspectacular, albeit informative, start — although it does allow the curators to include a spellbinding sheet of figures swiftly studied from life by Rembrandt.
Aside from an engaging wall of drawings of children, the standout grouping in the next section highlights the Carracci cousins, who founded an academy of art in Bologna in the early 1580s. Annibale was renowned as a portraitist — and two works displayed side by side, each different from the other, demonstrate why. The first, a virtuosic study in penand-ink. The second, rendered in red chalk, documents a young man with a spinal deformity, gazing upwards.
In many ways, this afflicted man could have appeared at the start of the exhibition, instead of Godsalve. This is because, with the obvious exception of the Holbein drawings, as well as one or two others, many of the drawings feature “ordinary” people. Florentine artist Carlo Dolci sketches his shoemaker. The earliest work in the show, by Pisanello, is of an anonymous “garzone” (studio apprentice) posing as a hanged man. In the final room, a middleaged man with curly hair and a wellworn, wrinkled face wears none of the trappings of the elite.
The last work, hung by itself before the exit, provides a superb finale: a 17 th-century chalk drawing, attributed to Flemish Baroque artist Jacob Jordaens, of an old woman wearing an elaborate ruff, her left cheek resting on a fist. Perhaps she’s the artist’s mother-in-law. We can’t be certain. In a sense, though, it doesn’t matter. The intensity of her presence, her expression scrunched with impatience, imbues with character. This drawing is almost 400 years old, yet it feels as fresh as yesterday.
Until Oct 22; npg.org.uk/encounter
Fresh face: Hans Holbein the Younger’s likeness of Sir John Godsalve.