The shortest of Henry VIII’s marriages was to the unfortunate Anne of Cleves, a German princess reputedly chosen as a match for diplomatic reasons. Popular legend has it that Henry sent his German court painter, Hans Holbein, to Kleve-Burg to capture a likeness of Anne for his approval – the sixteenth century equivalent of ‘photo appreciated’ on a dating ad. Popular legend would have us believe that Holbein – an artist so accurate that his paintings have recently led to a whole slew of disguised historical figures being belatedly recognised – managed to paint Anne looking decidedly hot, but that Henry VIII then found her markedly unattractive and failed to consummate the union. Like many men, I have always regarded the story with considerable scepticism, since the Anne of Holbein’s portrait is not someone you would ever kick out of bed.
What if, however, the ‘Anne’ portrait was of someone else entirely? Had Holbein got mixed up? Was he attempting to deceive the king? Or had Anne or one of her family arranged for a ‘ringer’ to site for the portrait?
My research has focussed on two pictures – one long attributed to the Flemish artist Quentin Massys but which I have now proved was the work of Holbein due to similarities in the handwriting of the hidden messages, and the other the ‘hot’ portrait long believed to be the real Anne. It seems from the revealed secret messages that Holbein was moonlighting on his German trip by working on portraits for a glamour calendar (whether this project was ever completed or not is unclear; no copies have survived).
Holbein – poignantly – seems to have known how much Henry would dislike Anne, as the secret text reads – in sixteenth century German – “HnRch [ie Heinrich, ie Henry] is going to kill me”. It seems that the two paintings were to be sent back in the same shipment, since the painting everyone assumes is Anne is marked “Miss August – HnRch must not see this painting!” Holbein, who must have known the king very well, seems to have been aware which of the two paintings would appeal to his master, and taken pains in his invisible secret messages to have avoided getting the two mixed up (we can infer that the ‘Anne’ painting was required by an English copyist or customer, hence Holbein saving on postage charges by sending the two works together).
Tragically, the courier must have been either illiterate or unable to speak German (or both), leading to his failure to act on the invisible secret messages and thus mixing up the works. (This scenario may also explain why the calendar project was cancelled and remained unfinished!)
The rest, as they say, is history – Henry picked ‘Miss August’ as his prospective bride and was horrified when the real Anne turned up. Another historical mystery solved by photoshop!
The complete works of Holbein (magazine collection in weekly instalments, missing issues 3,7, 11, 27-92 and the free binder)
That leaflet showing the way round the National Gallery
Hot German Historical Babes, June 1542 (slightly foxed)
The Pirelli Calendar, various years (for secondary research, honest)
Jeff de Cuisine is currently researching the fifteenth-century Swiss Chronicles of Diebold Schilling, in weekly instalments from Patel’s newsagents on the corner; missing issues 2, 5, 12, 31-33 and the free binder)
© Jeff de Cuisine February 8th 2015.