'His face is angelic rather than handsome; his head imperial'; the Venetian Lodovico Falier's 1531 description of the the forty-year-old King Henry VIII probably owes more to an impressionable than an impartial mind. It demonstrates, however, the impressive force of character behind the image of that celebrated monarch. Famous today as much through the efforts of Hollywood as Holbein, Henry's importance in English history rests in his straddling like a colossus the two worlds of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe. His convoluted diplomacy, leading eventually to his celebrated break with Rome, and his ruthless domestic tyranny caused the final extinction of the medieval aristocracy, and ushered in the families that were to dominate the flowering of Elizabethan England. It was the wealth of Henry's disbanded monasteries that payed for the palaces of Elizabeth's reign, and the unity created by his extermination of dynastic threats that nurtured her playwrights and poets.
The dynastic turbulence of 15th Century England had been so severe that the importance of public display of loyalty to the Crown increased exponentially under the Tudor monarchy. This was especially so because of the paucity of heirs to the dynasty throughout its century-long existence. The Crown quickly realised the importance of control of this vital source of propaganda, and the images of monarchy therefore develop in the sixteenth-century into political statements of considerable power. This composition, with the full force of the Royal authority staring down full-face to the spectator, is based upon a lost image of Henry by Holbein, a part of a mural for Whitehall Palace executed in 1536-37. In that, the King stood full-length, legs astride, with his parents, King Henry VII, and Elizabeth of York, as well as his fourth wife, Jane Seymour (mother of his only surviving son, King Edward VI). The image was one of the most potent of the authority of monarchy ever devised, and the model for subsequent portraits of Henry, and the type remains today the most famous of all portrayals of King Henry VIII.
Versions of the portrait type are in the Royal Collection, and in the collections of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, the Earl of Pembroke at Wilton and the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir, as well as Trinity College, Cambridge. The present version was formerly in the collection of Gerald, 14th Baron Berners. A model for Nancy Mitford's Lord Merlin, Berners was one of the great dilettantes of his day. Musician, author and artist, he studied with Stravinsky, wrote music for Gertrude Stein, was caricatured by Beerbohm and written about by Betjeman. His art collection ranged from Matisse to Constable, and was housed at his home, Faringdon House, where he died in 1950.