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  • Articles by Sonali

    Exhibition review: The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt at the National Portrait Gallery

    This modest but occasionally dazzling exhibition, just 49 pictures in all, focuses on the relationship between artist and sitter. Both Renaissance and Baroque artists, including one each by Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt are on show, but it’s the work of German born Holbein which stands out.

    In The Encounter we see an astonishingly lifelike series of drawings by him on loan from the Royal Collection. Hans Holbein the Younger(1497-1543) was a portrait painter to the rich and powerful of Northern Europe during the Renaissance era. It’s no surprise that Hilary Mantel uses Holbein as a character in ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’. He portrayed kings, queens, humanist scholar Erasmus and would-be brides of Henry VIII, Tudor King of England. His splendid and imposing portrait of Henry VIII hangs in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.  

    It’s a drawing by Holbein that opens the exhibition. It’s of John Godsalve, a protégé of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. Holbein arrived in London on 1532, looking for painting commissions. John Godsalve had recently been appointed to the office of the Common Meter of Precious Tissues. This is one of Holbein’s most highly finished drawings, shaded in ink and coloured chalk. It was probably used to advertise his skill as a portraitist.  He captures Godsalve's shy gaze giving the drawing a sense of immediacy.

    In 1535 Holbein was appointed court painter to Henry VIII. We see his drawings of the King’s courtiers, which are likely to be preparatory sketches for paintings. Look close up and you’ll see annotation marks in the works, which are reminders of the sitter’s complexion, or the colour and texture of fabrics. These sketches were made in London. There’s a tangibility to them. The sitters in this series of drawings seem to have travelled through time, from the Tudor era to the present. They're outlined in black chalk but Holbein adds in a blush of colour which helps breathe life into them.

    'Stranger do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these brought forth by Holbein’s hand.'                  Nicolas Bourbon 1538

    The portrait thought to be of ambitious courtier Ralph Sadler(1535), highlights his steely blue eyes. Sadler’s beard is drawn with meticulous attention to detail. There’s also a portrait of John More, Thomas More’s son. John More appears to be reading a book, apparently bored by sitting for his portrait. This individual study is later used in a group painting of Thomas More’s family and household. A sketch presumed to be of lady-in-waiting Mary Zouch (1532) captures her lively personality. She’s looking away, perhaps embarrassed by having her portrait taken. It’s as if she’s looking away from a camera.

    Also worth a mention is a selection of drawings from the Studio of the Cousins Carracci in Bologna. The cousins would sketch anyone in their immediate circle, their assistants, friends and patrons. Noblemen Giulio Pedrizzano is sketched by Annibale Carracci. Here we see the fluid flow of ink which suggests his rapid work. His method captures the sitter’s direct gaze to great effect.

    A sketch by Florentine artist Carlo Dolci entitled ‘The artist’s shoemaker’(1630) depicts the shoemaker in the midst of animated conversation. It appears Dolci and his shoemaker were close acquaintances.

    Only a few of Rembrant’s drawings exist now. 'A sheet of figure studies’(1636) by him uniquely contains several individual portraits (of various people) all on one sheet of paper. This is a rare find.

    These works reveal the artist’s direct response to the sitter. Holbein's drawings demonstrate how he brought his Northern Renaissance style to London, raising awareness of the Tudor period and its protagonists in our imagination today.


    A sheet of figure studies, with male heads and three sketches of a woman with a child by Rembrandt von Rijn c.1636 © The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

    Sir John Godsalve by Hans Holbein the Younger c.1532-4 Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

    Young Woman in a French Hood, possibly Mary Zouch by Hans Holbein the Younger c.1533 Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

     13 July - 22 October


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