Is this the face of Anne Boleyn?

4 February 2012

Anne Boleyn. Photo: Royal Collection.

Amongst all the portraits that claim to depict the ill fated Tudor Queen, Anne Boleyn, I would say that this is the least in favour, probably because her supporters (of which there are many so I’d better watch my tongue really) don’t think it is sufficiently glamourous or flattering.

However, it is clear from the chronicles of the period that Anne Boleyn was more attractive than the outright dazzling beauty, and that a lot of her charm was probably due to a certain intelligent winsomeness of manner and an ability to use her fine dark eyes and cloud of raven black hair to full effect. Neither of which even a master like Holbein could effectively convey via the medium of pencil or brush.

In contrast, the alleged Holbein sketch of Anne Boleyn depicts a not unattractive woman in a frumpy headdress that hides her hair, with a long face, emphasised by a slight double chin and a certain melancholy manner. Perhaps I am alone though in discerning a slight smile behind her downcast dark eyes and nudging the corners of her full pink lips. However, this is perhaps not the sort of face that one could imagine ensnaring Henry VIII. I’m reminded though of the recent incident when Russell Brand rather unwisely Tweeted a photo of his wife Katy Brand in bed without make up on and looking almost unrecognisable…

The eighteenth century ‘Anna Bollein Queen’ inscription on the sketch, as with the other Holbein sketches in the Royal Colection, is due to an earlier identification by Edward VI’s tutor, Sir John Cheke, who knew most of the sitters and can surely be relied upon to be able to identify a portrait of someone so significant to the Tudor court.

Although the identification as Anne Boleyn has fallen out of favour somewhat in recent decades thanks to the work of Eric Ives amongst others, I was really interested to see that the Royal Collection website now proudly proclaims that this is indeed the portrait of Anne Boleyn – this definite identification being based on Cheke’s authority on the matter, a study by art historian, Bendor Grosvenor in the book ‘Lost Faces’ and also the efforts of Professor Maria Hayward to analyse the garment worn by the sitter and identify it as a fur lined nightgown presented to Anne Boleyn by her husband, Henry VIII.

A source at the Royal Collection has informed me that based on all these factors, they made the decision to positively identify the sketch as being a portrait of Anne Boleyn in the recent exhibition about Henry VIII and have stuck to this ever since. They acknowledge that we will probably never know the truth of the matter but the evidence pointing to this indeed being a depiction of Henry VIII’s second wife is compelling enough for it to be the most likely identification.

They also pointed out that the lack of glamour and clear informality of the image, which has led many to doubt that it could possibly be a portrait of the apparently very fashion and image conscious Anne Boleyn is actually a point in its favour as who else but the Queen could be comfortably depicted in such an informal and natural way?

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