Uncovering layers of mystery: Holbein portrait restored

Many fascinating secrets of a popular painting by Hans Holbein the Younger have been revealed by a major two-year conservation project by the Royal Collection Trust.
This magnificent work of art by Holbein, one of the greatest portraitists of the sixteenth century, was considered for a long time to be of Hans of Antwerp, a goldsmith who worked for King Henry VIII.
Executed in 1532, the painting is of a bearded man dressed in an opulent fur-lined gown. He is sitting at a green desk, apparently at work with a quill and a sheet of paper, and in his hand is a letter which he is about to open with a knife.
In 1874, experts concluded, after analysing an inscription on the letter in the painting, that it was indeed Hans of Antwerp, who was a friend of Holbein. However, scholars in the twentieth century began to contest this prevailing view.
“It is wonderful to be able to confirm finally that the man is in fact a German merchant, perhaps sharing a name with the well-known goldsmith,” revealed Lucy Whitaker, a curator. “Conservation of the painting has brought us tantalisingly close to solving the mystery of the sitter’s identity.”
Conservators who worked on the painting believe it belongs to one of seven remaining portraits Holbein produced of German merchants that were working in London’s Steelyard, a major trading base of the Hanseatic League.
One of the most interesting discoveries was that the painting had, during its first 100 years of existence, been broken into multiple pieces and glued back together. So badly restored was the painting that a prominent detail of a key to the left of the subject had been completely covered up.
Another significant alteration that had been oddly performed included changing the end of the sitter’s seal. What has been visible for years is the letter W. Conservators uncovered that the original mark was of a circle with lines in it – a merchant’s badge so to speak.
The newly restored painting, which is known as Hans of Antwerp, is to form part of a new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace next month. The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein is on from November 2nd 2012 until April 14th 2013.
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