This portrait of Henry VII (1457-1509) is a rare example of early English Tudor portraiture and is arguably one of the finest portraits of the monarch to have survived. Presumably derived from a life portrait executed by an anonymous artist, possibly of Flemish origin, during the later years of his reign, the original portrait would have served as the source for replicas.
The iconography of Henry VII falls into two main types, a pattern depicting the sitter at half-length either turned to the viewer's left or right wearing a black cap with a hat jewel, a chain of office, a fur lined cloak and holding a red rose in his right hand. Although the two types are related there are significant differences in the angle of the head and the positioning of the hands. Significantly, the image in which Henry is turned to the left appears to depict an older man.
The majority of the surviving portraits depict him turned to the right and examples of these, of varying quality, include those in the collections of the Society of Antiquaries, London; Christ Church, Oxford; the Royal Collection, Windsor; Lord Tollemache, Helmingham Hall; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Holbein adapted this type for the now lost 1537 Privy Chamber fresco at Whitehall (see J. Rowlands, Holbein, Oxford, 1985, p. 225, no. L. 14). Many of the images of Henry produced in the later sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries appear to derive from the Holbein image rather than an early panel painting.
Fewer of the pattern depicting Henry turned to the left exist and including the present work are those at Hatfield House, Salisbury; another formerly in the collection of the Earl of Ellenborough (sold Sotheby's, London, 11 June 1947, lot 59); and one formerly in the collection of the Earl of Brownlow (see R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, I, London, 1969, p. 151).
The present portrait is extremely close to the one formerly in the Brownlow collection (later recorded in the collection of Irving T. Bush, by 1949; see Strong, ibid., p.151) and they may well be the product of the same workshop. The iconography in the decorative trelliswork of red roses, fleur-de-lys and portcullises are symbols of the founder of the Tudor dynasty's pre-occupation with consolidating power and his claim to the thrones of both England and France through dynastic inheritance and strong government.
The best documented portrait of Henry VII to have survived is the one in the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 416) that was painted by an unknown artist in 1505 by order of Herman Rinck, agent of Emperor Maximilian I, in connection with the sitter's proposed marriage to Margaret, the widowed Duchess of Savoy. Sculpted portraits of Henry include a polychrome bust by Pietro Torrigiano (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and a wax head, executed by an unknown artist for the King's funeral effigy (Westminster Abbey, London).
Three portraits of his father are recorded in the possession of Henry VIII (see D. Starkey, ed., The Inventory of King Henry VIII, London, 1998, p. 237, no. 10610 and p. 385, nos. 15356 & 15401) none of which are in the Royal Collection today. By the time of Charles I, one of these presumably was among the '23 litle heads' recorded at Whitehall in 1637-9 by Abraham van der Doort:
An ould Picture of kinge Henrie ye 7th with 2
hands In a furrd gowne and a blacke capp In a black and green
painted and guilded frame.
The measurements are given as 12½ x 9 in. (see O. Millar, 'Abraham van der Doort's Catalogue of the Collections of Charles I', in The Walpole Society, XXVII, 1960, p.28).
The son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Margaret Beaufort, heiress of John of Gaunt, Henry VII was brought up in Wales by his uncle, Jasper Tudor. He became head of the House of Lancaster on the death of Henry VI in 1471 and spent the reign of Edward IV as a refugee in Brittany. After defeating Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, he was crowned King of England in the same year and married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and heiress to the Yorkist claim the following year.
The union of the two houses of York and Lancaster was the foundation of the Tudor dynasty and an alliance that during the turbulent early years of his reign Henry VII felt compelled to stress. In 1501 at a feast to celebrate the marriage of his eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales to Catherine of Aragon in the Great Hall at the palace of Richmond, a chronological series of portraits depicting the English monarchs culminating in a portrait of Henry himself were displayed. The Tudors were placing their new dynasty in context: the successor to the old English royal houses and the equal of the oldest European ones. This was taken up his youngest son and successor, Henry VIII, who quickly began war with France, setting himself forward as legitimate successor to the English crown, but also to it claim (by female transmission) to the French throne.