Who painted that portrait? And when…?
For anyone interested in portraits of those who lived centuries ago, it can be very frustrating—if not to say aggravating—to come across one portrait, that recurs all over the internet and identifies the people in it, but that is all. No date, no artist, nothing. A good example is this portrait of Henry VII with his two henchmen Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson. Henry VII is in the middle, of course, with Empson on the left and Dudley on the right, in the fancy hat. If you search Google Images for Dudley and Empson together, this picture comes up time and time again.
It looks as if it was painted from life, or at least by someone who had seen all three men. But was it? As with the portraits of Richard III, no one knows exactly when they were painted. Copies from an original? Guessed at in the sixteenth century and clothes accordingly? A definitive answer is not forthcoming.
Did Dudley and Empson look like this? Was Dudley a natty dresser? All we can say is that the likeness of Henry is executed with some accuracy. Certainly you could pick him out in a crowded room, whether or not he wore ermine. He is quite distinctive, tall, slender and rather elegant. Maybe not the world’s most handsome, but still identifiable. Sooo, what is the provenance of this work?
When someone me asked who painted it, I was stumped. None of the internet images actually told me anything, other than who was in the picture. So I started to look, prying all over everywhere in an attempt to run this mystery to ground.
The first clue I unearthed was a vague reference to it being ‘English School’. Not very helpful. So I kept ferreting around and eventually came to this: “The picture is entitled Henry VII with his Ministers, showing the king with Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. The original may be seen at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, reproduced in N. Williams, The Life and Times of Henry VII (1973), p.61.”
Right, now I felt I was getting closer, and so Googled Empson, Dudley and Belvoir. This wonderfully informative reference turned up: From The History of Belvoir Castle from the Norman Quest to the 19th Century by the Reverend Irwin Eller, 1841, p.236: “Henry VII, Empson and Dudley. Unknown. Both from the beauties and defects of this picture, I should be inclined to consider it an original, and painted probably by Sigismund Holbein, the uncle of the illustrious Hans, who was also a painter, and is mentioned in the registrar’s office at Wells as having lived and died there in the reign of Henry VII. Sigismund Holbein is supposed to have painted some ancient limnings in a cabinet at Kensington. Two miniatures of Henry VII, each in the black cap, and one of them with a rose in his hand, are mentioned in a manuscript in the Harleian collection.”
Surely this has to be right? Mr Eller certainly seems to know what he is talking about, and if he thinks it is the work of Sigismund Holbein, who lived and died in Wells during Henry’s reign, then I feel certain this painting is indeed Uncle Holbein’s work.
If anyone knows better, please let me know, but unless or until someone can prove otherwise, I am content that I have run this picture to ground. It was painted during Henry’s lifetime, and therefore during the lifetimes of Dudley and Empson as well, and so stands a very good chance indeed of being a true likeness of all three. And I think one of the three was a dedicated follower of fashion. Take a bow, Edmund Dudley.