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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: Mantel’s Wolf Hall and the Fictions of Portraiture

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the presentation by Jean Marie Christensen, a doctoral candidate and lecturer in Art History at Southern Methodist University and 2023/2024 Folger Institute Fellow, about Folger collection items related to the novel Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel’s award-winning 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, illustrates the turbulence of Henry VIII’s court through Thomas Cromwell’s political advancement. Throughout the novel, Cromwell becomes entangled with Henry’s politics, including his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn, and imprisonment and execution of the king’s advisor, Sir Thomas More. Mantel humanizes these historical actors by emphasizing their vulnerabilities and vanity through descriptive portraits. Such fictional descriptions prompt an art historical evaluation against the surviving portraits from Henry’s reign.

My research overlaps with Mantel’s rich, written depictions of Henry and his court and her awareness of the theory of the king’s two bodies, a political theory made popular by Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 book and parlayed into social theory in Louis Marin’s 1988 work, Portrait of the King . Indeed, my doctoral dissertation examines the complexities that exist between the king’s portrait and the reality of their physical body. Mantel describes the king’s two bodies with the first body being the living, physical body and the second body being where Henry’s “princely double” is the body “wreathed in the mysteries of kingship.” My research emphasizes that this “princely double” is best found in portraiture where it can be glorified by artists to enshrine royal power.

When we picture Henry VIII, we tend to think about Holbein’s version of the king. In the 1537 portrait the king is larger than life as he fills up the dimensions of the picture plane. Standing with his legs spread and hands on his hips, the king glares at his viewer, ensuring that we consume his peacock-like display. His portrait body is encased in velvets, satins, and threads shot with real silver leaf. Henry is embellished in such a way that his real, physical body is almost camouflaged from view in favor of displaying his “princely double”. But this is not the Henry in Mantel’s book, as this version of the king occurs much later. Instead, Joos van Cleve’s version of Henry is more akin to the king we meet in Wolf Hall. Painted in the early 1530s, when Cromwell enters Henry’s service and during Anne Boleyn’s elevation from royal favorite to queen consort, Henry is depicted sitting at a table before a green background. His body is bejeweled as he is dressed in gems that enrich his elaborate costume, indicating his wealth and status. His hands are well articulated as he delicately unravels a scroll that is laid across a crimson pillow. Henry does not look at the viewer; instead, he gazes over our left shoulder with a slight smile on his lips. Van Cleve’s portrait of Henry suits Mantel’s king—this is not the king who ruthlessly executed former advisors, favorites, and kin, but a king who could be engaging, warm and intimidating at the same time.

In the third chapter of part five, “The Painter’s Eye,” Cromwell comes face-to-face with his portrait by Holbein and we read how Cromwell, his family, and his household all interact and interpret the portrait. Cromwell observes his portrait in sections, seeing himself in fragments, notes that Holbein has given him courtesan-smooth skin but is grateful that the artist depicted him wearing Wolsey’s turquoise ring. While Cromwell appears content with the portrait, his household criticizes Holbein’s rendition. The artist has made Cromwell “too stout and too severe”, a description that is echoed by imperial ambassador Eustace Chapyus who says the portrait is a fiction because Cromwell is depicted alone where, in reality, he is always surrounded by people. Yet, reality does exist within Cromwell’s portrait. Mantel briefly touches on the book on the table before Cromwell and suggests that it may be his late-wife’s prayer book. Just this summer scholars at Anne Boleyn’s family seat, Hever Castle, and specialists at Trinity College in Cambridge discovered Cromwell’s real book of hours and connected it to the book featured in Holbein’s portrait. The existence of the prayer book amplifies how the real portrait sitting may have taken place and that Cromwell may have chosen to have the prayer book included due to its personal importance.

While portraits of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell are complex, visualizing Anne Boleyn is more difficult. Mantel even notes, when Holbein expresses desire to paint her, that she may not wish to be studied with an artist’s intensity. Indeed, a painting by Holbein of Anne has not survived to the present day. However, a Holbein drawing of Anne and a her coronation medal exist. These images contrast with Mantel’s descriptions of Anne which rely on the ill-fated queen’s interactions with Henry rather than her appearance. Mantel’s reference to Henry and Anne’s physical intimacy is real and found in the king’s love letters, located in an eighteenth-century printing at the Folger Library.

Although only alluded to in the novel, the real letters reveal that Henry wants Anne to be his mistress, queen consort, and even his political advisor.  He begs Anne to consummate their relationship while threatening her with replacement should she continue to refuse such intimacy. Henry praises Anne’s beauty in fragments as he compliments and desires her eyes, mouth, hands, and breasts. While this rhetorical dismemberment alludes to Anne’s fate, it also recalls how Cromwell describes his own portrait where Holbein has broken him apart only to realign him into a new, but familiar whole.

Wolf Hall is an examination of the reality and fallacy of Henry VIII’s court politics that see seemingly insignificant issues bloom into unprecedented cultural change. Through Cromwell’s personal losses, gains, and beliefs, Mantel ensures that the reader is aware that this court, and its king are man-made actors who are dependent on each other for success. Indeed, Mantel weaves a historically based fiction to match the social, political, and art fictions that developed during Henry’s turbulent reign.

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program

Capitol Hill Community Foundation
Junior League of Washington

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