A Closer Look At Henry VIII’s Six Wives

A Closer Look At Henry VIII’s Six Wives

To mark its new exhibition on the six wives of notorious serial husband and Tudor monarch Henry VIlI,

the National Portrait Gallery partnered with the West End's SIX the Musical for a Tudor extravaganza on July 26th. Visitors were encouraged to don their French hoods and velvet doublets for a night of merrymaking with the DJ and Drag performer Timberlina, costumed life drawing and making sessions, and even cocktails and coasters inspired by the unique history of each queen.

The exhibition itself (20 June - 8 September 2024), boasts over 140 works exploring the agency, influence and cultural impact of each wife. With one eye poised on contemporary portraits by Hiroshi Sugimoto, it travels back through time to 16th century opulence. There are masterpieces by Hans Holbein the Younger, a painting of Queen Katherine Parr once thought to be destroyed by a fire in 1949, and a portrait of Anne of Cleves by Edgar Degas, the renowned French Impressionist painter.

"Henry VIII was the star around which the country and Tudor court orbited. In his nearly 38-year reign, the six women who married him were protagonists in an almost implausible melodrama,” says Dr Charlotte Bolland, Senior Curator of Research and 16th Century Collections at the National Portrait Gallery. “Often reduced to the rhyme Divorced, Beheaded, Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, this exhibition seeks to restore the queens’ individuality and agency in both historic and contemporary storytelling, bringing them out of Henry's shadow and their homogenous grouping.”

Anne Boleyn (1999) by Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto. Collection of Odawara Art Foundation, Kanagawa, Japan

The gallery has pulled out all the stops in order to bring the queens' captivating histories to life. Alongside waxworks crafted by Madame Tussauds, their profiles are embedded within a cavalcade of magnificent tapestries, textiles, books, personal letters, costumes and jewels. Since each wife helped to shape a fascinating period of English history, their representations, along with the public's perception of who they were, have fluctuated over time. Both old and modern depictions of Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr, are displayed, dissected and compared to their individual realities, interests, relationships, patronage and the family networks that brought them to court.

From Anne Boleyn's distinct 'B' pendant necklace to illustrious furs and velvet frocks, each queen used portraiture to communicate her heraldic emblems, politics, religious beliefs, values, identity and status to the masses. Often doomed to tragic fates, their stories reflect a patriarchal court of social prejudices and tumultuous politics that have inspired numerous writers and artists to uncover or warp the 'truth' of their lives and characters.

Probably Katherine Howard (c.1540) by Hans Holbein the Younger © The Buccleuch Chattels Trust

Naturalistic in form, Sugimoto's photographic works relay the tensions between the womens' real and imagined characters. Infused with recognisable motifs, they exude a performative tone alluding to the fact that each queen was painfully aware that they were performing on the court stage.

The gallery exposes the pressure to appear like a worthy wife to the King (who was thought of as God’s representative on earth), through visual relics of women of classical antiquity and the Bible, which constantly permeated every aspect of court life: chased in metal, painted on panels, woven into tapestries and illustrated in books. Playing cards that reference the biblical heroine Judith as The Queen of Hearts and paintings such as Joos van Cleve's Lucretia (c. 1520-25), help us to empathise with the careful fabrication of their public personas.

Further examining this tension, depictions from cinema, theatre, opera and television are brought together to explore how the queens have been interpreted in popular culture. There's Katherine of Aragon's character costume from SIX the Musical; film clips and marketing material from the German film Anna Boleyn (1920); costume from stage performances at both the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Opera House; and collaged designs created for the 1970 BBC television production, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Lucretia (c.1520-25) by Joos van Cleve © KHM-Museumsverband

"Bringing the smoke and mirrors of the stage and screen into dialogue with the magnificence of the Tudor court, Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIll's Queens hopes to engender empathy,” says Dr. Nicholas Cullinan OBE, Director, National Portrait Gallery. “It reminds us to consider the stories that we collectively construct, and the ease with which we can come to define people by a single moment in their lives."

Title image. Katherine Parr (c.1547) attributed to Master John. Photograph: Fraser Marr Photography © Private Collection, London