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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


For the past few months I’ve been immersed in the Tudors, reading the superb, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize for literature (the gold standard as far as I’m concerned), and watching the oh-so steamy Showtime series, The Tudors. It’s an interesting exercise because they cover much of the same fertile ground of incidents and intrigue that make up the tangled history of Henry VIII.

All in all, The Tudors is a very good production, but I wonder why in the book it is Henry’s sister, Mary who is married to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, whereas in the series it’s Margaret. I also wish the women didn’t all look like Victoria’s Secret models and (picky me) think the costumes, headdresses and jewels sometimes don’t look quite right—a pity since there are so many contemporary portraits out there to draw inspiration from.

In fact, when I was at the National Portrait Gallery in London this spring, I happened on an exhibition on the Tudors with the famous Thomas More family portrait, (referred to in Mantel’s book). There was also a gorgeous full-length Hans Holbein of Katherine Parr. It is so beautifully done, so sumptuous in every detail. I loved noting that at the edge of her brocade overskirt, one can see the wisps of its fur lining peeking out.

Both the series, and to a larger extent, the book, present revisionist portrayals of More and Thomas Cromwell. The book is less kind to More than the series where he just seems misguided, but still a man of principle. Mantel’s More comes across as a merciless religious zealot. In her book it is Cromwell who’s the hero: he’s the humanist, the loving pater familias, the true friend to the king. The series presents him as a brilliant strategist, a loyal subject, tough when he needs to be, but reasonable given the circumstances.

It was Cromwell’s transformation from blacksmith’s son to the Earl of Essex that piqued Mantel's interest, causing her to contemplate a contrarian approach to him. It’s a daring undertaking and she produces a wonderful unorthodox portrait of a well-known historical figure. I’d like to believe it’s true, as I’ve become fond of Mantel’s Cromwell. He’s an astute observer with a wry sense of humor and part of the fun of the book is seeing the machinations and personages of Henry VIII’s court through his eyes.

But two things stand in the way of me totally buying it. They are the Holbein portraits of More (with the gorgeous crimson velvet sleeves) and Cromwell at The Frick Museum in New York. Holbein actually appears in Wolf Hall as a crony of Cromwell’s working at his behest on the decoration of the Queen’s apartments in The Tower in advance of Anne Boylen’s coronation, and at the Cromwells’ house as well. I suspect Mantel did this because she was uneasy about the Frick portraits which depict the two men in a manner very much at odds with her version: Cromwell is thoroughly unappetizing, pig-eyed, pinched and furtive. By contrast, More with his kind, open face seems to epitomize humanity and goodness—an interesting dichotomy given that Holbein was a Protestant and thus on Cromwell’s side, not More’s. The fact that Holbein was a contemporary eyewitness and spent time in the company of each man gives his portrayal of their characters the more weight.

Addendum: Talk about timing, no sooner had I finished the above that I read the very passage where Cromwell views his completed portrait. Mantel wisely addresses the issue head-on (she needs to, to bolster her argument): his family complains that he’s never worn such an unpleasant expression and Cromwell decides that Holbein intentionally made him look “like a murderer” to inspire fear in his adversaries.

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