Famed as the court painter of King Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the greatest portrait painters of the sixteenth century.

Born in Augsburg, in southern Germany, in 1497-98, Holbein was the son of painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder. Hans, like his brother Ambrosius, followed the family trade which he apparently learnt under the tutelage of his father and uncle until breaking away to make his own mark.

National-GalleryJourneying with Ambrosius to Basel in what is now Switzerland, the two brothers became apprenticed to the city’s leading painter Hans Herbster. In 1517, Holbein went with father to Lucerne where they worked painting murals for a leading merchant. It is thought while there, that he visited northern Italy where he studied Italian frescos.

Returning to Basel in 1519, he quickly re-established his business there, becoming a member of the artists’ guild, and married Elsbeth Schmid, their first son arriving in the first year of their marriage (the couple apparently had four children, two of whom are depicted in a portrait with his wife he painted in the late 1520s).

He was soon completing numerous major projects for the city – including painting internal murals for the Town Hall’s council chamber – and was also involved in creating illustrations for books – the most famous being the series of images known as the Dance of Death – and painting portraits, including his first portraits of the Renaissance scholar, Erasmus. It was these and other portraits that ensured his fame across Europe.

The decline in the production of religious art, thanks to the Reformation which was then sweeping over the continent, apparently led Holbein to look further afield for work and, having first gone to France, in 1526 he went to England.

There he was welcomed by Sir Thomas More, then a key figure in the regime of King Henry VIII, who soon found him some commissions. His works during this period included portraits of More, William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, astronomer Nicholas Kratzer and courtiers like Sir Henry Guildford.

He returned to Basel a wealthy and successful man in 1528 and remained there for four years before once again leaving his family and heading to England, this time finding favour with the Boleyn family and Thomas Cromwell.

It was early during this period – he remained in England until his death in 1543 – that he painted portraits of Hanseatic League merchants of the Steelyard (see our earlier post here) as well as The Ambassadors (see our earlier post here).

In 1536, he was employed as painter to King Henry VIII and the following year he painted what is arguably his most famous image – that of King Henry VIII in all his glory in the image known as the Whitehall Mural which pictured the king with his the wife, Queen Jane Seymour, his father, King Henry VII and his mother, Queen Elizabeth of York (the image was lost in the fire which destroyed Whitehall Palace in 1698 but copies were made and a copy is now at Hampton Court Palace).

King Henry VIII was to be his subject on numerous occasions as were other members of the Royal Family, courtiers and prospective wives including, famously, a portrait of Anne of Cleves which may have oversold her beauty to the king who was unimpressed with her in person (there is apparently no evidence the king blamed Holbein himself for this).

While he had successfully navigated his way past the downfall of Sir Thomas More and then the Boleyn family, the fall of Sir Thomas Cromwell did cause significant damage to his standing. Nonetheless he retained his official position at court and it was during this time that he painted some of his finest miniatures including those of the sons of Henry VIII’s friend, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk.

It is believed Holbein may have returned to visit his family in late 1540 before returning to London where he died sometime in October or November, 1543, having made his will on 7th October at his home in Aldgate (plague has been suggested as the cause of his death). The site of his grave is unknown.

Holbein’s legacy is such that the portraits he created in his two stints in London have become a key component in how we view Tudor England – and in particular, the Tudor court – today.

His works can be seen in key locations across London including the National Gallery (pictured above), the National Portrait Gallery (where his bust is one of a series of artists on the exterior) and Hampton Court Palace.

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The Thames-side property known as the Steelyard – the phrase comes from the Dutch-German word Stahlhof and relates either to a steel beam used for weighing goods or a courtyard where the goods were sold – was the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London from the 13th century onward.

Located near where Walbrook flows out of the Thames on the north bank (the site is now at least partly covered by Cannon Street Station), the walled compound – which at some point housed as many as 400 people – was in some senses a mini city within a city complete with a hall, warehouses, a weighing house and counting houses as well as residences and a chapel.

While the community – which represented an alliance of towns and cities in northern Europe – was mentioned as far back as the late 1200s, it wasn’t until 1303 that King Edward I formerly confirmed the tax and customs concessions of the merchants (at some point, in return for privileges they were given, the group was charged with keeping up the maintenance of Bishopsgate).

The power of the trading post had grown substantially by the 15th century and the concessions the group had been granted meant there was inevitably considerable friction with English merchants. There was also some official friction and one example of it was when the Steelyard was closed temporarily in the 15th century when the Hanse cities were at war with England.

In 1598 Queen Elizabeth I took away the Steelyard’s trading privileges (after which the compound was apparently looted). It was subsequently allowed to reopen by King James I but never regained the prominence it had previously had.

Much of the compound was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but nonetheless, the Steelyard was rebuilt and continued to provide links between German cities and the English until the mid 1800s when the land was sold off and, in 1866, Cannon Street Station built on the site.

A couple of surviving objects from the Steelyard include a series of at least eight portraits of Hanse merchants painted by Hans Holbein the Younger and a stone model of the Hanseatic Arms which were placed over the gate into the compound can be seen at the Museum of London.

ThomasCromwellA new display exploring the demand for copies and remakes of portraits originally created by Tudor court painter Hans Holbein the Younger has opened at the National Portrait Gallery. Hans Holbein Re-made features a selection of copies of Holbein’s works from the gallery’s collection including portraits of William Warham, John Fisher, Sir Thomas More and Sir Richard Southwell, all of which have undergone new technical analysis as part of the gallery’s Making Art in Tudor Britain project. The research reveals new details about how and when the paintings were made and the techniques used. The display also includes a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex – thought to be one of the first miniatures Holbein painted alongside a digital screen which enables this work of Holbein’s to be compared with that of another artist working in his studio. In Room 3. Runs until 31st August. Admission is free. For more, see www.npg.org.uk. PICTURE: Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

This year marks the 350th anniversary of King Charles II’s granting of a Royal Charter to The Worshipful Company of Needlemakers and to commemorate the occasion, the Guildhall Library is hosting an exhibition of some of the company’s treasures and history. Among the displays are tools used in 19th and 20th centuries, 18th century silverware, and the Company Arms (gifted to it in 1995) as well as examples of their craft from both early and recent periods. The exhibition closes on 29th March, so you’ll have to be quick. Admission is free. For more, see www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visiting-the-city/archives-and-city-history/guildhall-library/exhibitions/Pages/The-Worshipful-Company-of-Needlemakers.aspx

A new display of revolutionary sixteenth century woodcuts opens at the Royal Academy of Arts on Saturday. Renaissance  Impressions: Chiaroscuro woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, looks at the development of the printing technique of the chiaroscuro woodcut and presents more than 100 rare prints by artists from Germany, Italy and The Netherlands which have come from the collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna and the personal collection of Honorary Royal Academician Georg Baselitz. The new technique – the first known example of which is widely believed to have been created by Hans Burgkmair the Elder with his 1508 depiction of Emperor Maximilian on Horseback – involved supplementing the key ‘black line block’ with one or several ‘tone blocks’ with chiaroscuro woodcuts the first colour woodcuts to make dramatic use of light and shadow to suggest form, volume and depth. Runs until 8th June in the Sackler Wing of Galleries. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk.

Roman-skull-found-at-Liverpool-Street-ticket-hall-_102065More than 50 objects – including skulls from the Roman era – unearthed as part of the Crossrail project have gone on display to the public for the first time. Portals to the Past also features a Roman cremation pot (which still contained remains when discovered), 16th century jewellery, and flint used by Londoners some 9,000 years ago. The free exhibition runs at the Crossrail Visitor Information Centre behind Centre Point at 6-18 St Giles High Street until 15th March. To coincide with it, Crossrail archaeologists will be running a series of lectures on Wednesday evenings starting at 6pm. No booking is required but numbers are limited so it’s recommended that attendees turn up early. For more information, www.crossrail.co.uk/sustainability/archaeology/archaeology-exhibition-portals-to-the-past-february-2014.

A new exhibition celebrating the artists of the German Renaissance opened at the National Gallery yesterday. Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance features paintings, drawings and prints by the likes of Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach the Elder and examines how perceptions of the pieces have changed over time. Works include Holbein’s Anne of Cleves, Hans Baldung Grien’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Rosary, and Matthias Grunewald’s drawing of An Elderly Woman with Clasped Hands. There is also a reconstruction of the Liesborn altarpiece, created in 1465 and originally housed at the Benedictine Abbey of Liesborn in Germany. Runs until 11th May. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.nationalgallery.co.uk.

Film-makers Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) have been commemorated with the placement of an English Heritage Blue Plaque at the site of their former workplace, a flat in Dorset House, on Gloucester Place in Marylebone. It was from Flat 120 in the apartment block that they oversaw the production of some of their greatest films including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) between 1942 and 1947. Film director Martin Scorsese was among those who unveiled the plaque. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques/.

Send all items of interest for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

Contrary to what some may, St Katharine Cree is not named after a person of that name (or at least not entirely). St Katherine, certainly, but the addition of ‘Cree’ is simply a medieval corruption of ‘Christ Church’.

The name Christ Church, abbreviated to Cree, was applied to this church because it was the prior of the Augustinian Priory of the Holy Trinity in Aldgate, also known as Christ Church, who founded St Katharine Cree in 1280 for the use of the area’s parishioners (apparently their use of the priory church was causing problems).

The current building dates from 1630 (although the tower dates from 1504), making it the only surviving Jacobean church in London.

It  was consecrated by William Laud, then Bishop of London (and later beheaded for, among other things, his support of King Charles I). He is commemorated in one of the church’s chapels.

Unlike so many other of London’s churches, St Katharine Cree was not destroyed in the Great Fire of London and only suffered minor damage in the Blitz. But structural problems meant it did need substantial restoration in the 1960s.

Inside, is a mid 17th century font and stained glass dating from the same era which depicts a Catherine wheel (St Katherine/Catherine is said to have died strapped to a spiked wheel when martyred during the time of the Roman Empire.).

There is also a rose window which was modelled on that of old St Paul’s Cathedral (before it was destroyed by the Great Fire). Parts of the organ, which was restored in the early Noughties, date from the 17th century and the original was played by none other than George Frideric Handel and Henry Purcell. The six bells were restored in 2009 following an appeal.

Among those buried at St Katharine Cree are Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a 16th century diplomat (his monument is inside), and the artist Hans Holbein the Younger (his grave is also claimed by St Andrew Undershaft).

The church today has no parish but is the Guild Church to Finance, Commerce and Industry (its rector is that of St Olave Hart Street). Among its annual events is the Lion Sermon given in October, a tradition that dates back to 1643 and owes its origins to the former Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Gayer, who decided to finance the sermon after he survived an encounter with a lion in Syria.

WHERE: Leadenhall Street, London (nearest Tube stations are Aldgate and Tower Hill); WHEN: See website for service timesCOST: Free; WEBSITE: www.sanctuaryinthecity.net/St-Katharine-Cree.html.

A stunning portrait on a grand scale, The Ambassadors depicts two influential figures from the 16th century – Jean de Dinteville, the then 29-year-old French ambassador to England and Georges de Selve, the then 25-year-old bishop of Lavaur and sometime French ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.

The oil on oak work, which is housed in room four of the National Gallery and is also one of the images featured online as part of the Google Art Project, was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1533 and is meant as a portrait to show the men’s power, learning and wealth – they are surrounded by objects which include celestial and terrestrial globes, a portable sundial, a lute (and its case), and books including one of hymns and another of arithmetic as well as richly decorated furnishings.

Yet there’s more to this painting than initially meets the eye – a closer look reveals a distorted skull in the foreground which, when viewed from the painting’s right-hand side comes into its proper perspective. A reflection on mortality perhaps?

And though no typically viewed as a religious work, there are also some striking religious overtones to this image including a broken string on the lyre – often seen as a Christian symbol of disharmony – and, partly hidden behind the curtain on the far left of the painting as you look at it, a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Holbein painted the work during his second stint in England while depicting life at the Tudor court. Among his most famous other images are one of King Henry VIII (held in the National Portrait Gallery) and another of Christina of Denmark (also in the National Gallery – painted to show Henry VIII the image of a potential future wife although the relationship never went any further than that).

PICTURE: Ng1314, Hans Holbein the Younger, Detail of Jean de Dinteville and George de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533 © The National Gallery, London.

WHERE: Room 4, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square (nearest tube stations Leicester Square and Charing Cross); WHEN: 10am to 6pm (Fridays 10am to 9pm); COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.nationalgallery.org.uk. The image is also available online as part of the Google Art Project here:www.googleartproject.com/museums/nationalgallery/the-ambassadors.