As we are often reminded, all that glitters is not gold. Unless you happen to be King Henry VIII, in which case even your clothing would have the Midas touch. The likeness of the king on the facing page was painted in the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger in 1542, the year Catherine Howard (that’s wife number five) had the misfortune of losing her head. The picture in all its glory is on view at Sotheby’s London from 4–8 July, along with other treasures from the Castle Howard collection. The portrait appears at a moment when Henry VIII is a hot topic, with both television and stage versions of novelist Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall fuelling the public imagination. Not surprisingly, Joanna Eatwell, the costume designer for the TV series, says she studied portraits by Holbein while preparing wardrobes for Damian Lewis (Henry), Mark Rylance (Thomas Cromwell) and other members of the cast.
Beneath his red velvet surcoat here, Henry is wearing an embroidered doublet made from cloth of gold. Cloth of gold was woven in threads spun from genuine precious metal and, needless to say, it was as expensive as it was fancy. It could be made in any colour by weaving vertical (warp) threads of silk in the chosen hue, with horizontal (weft) threads of gold. The resulting fabric had a characteristic sheen, which was notoriously tricky to capture in paint. Brocade or embroidery could be more easily depicted, since the gold provided a contrast to the background fabric. This effect is visible in the gown worn by the lady in François de Troy’s portrait (page 30), which will be offered in the New York Master Paintings sale on 4 June. The gold stands proud in gleaming relief against the blue silk.
KING HENRY VIII, 1542, BY THE WORKSHOP OF HANS HOLBEIN THE YOUNGER, TO BE OFFERED
IN THE OLD MASTER & BRITISH PAINTINGS SALE ON 8 JULY (£800,000–1,200,000).
But, regardless of the artistic obstacles their attire
presented, if a patron had spent an enormous sum on their cloth of gold
garment, they probably wanted to show it off. It was the artist’s
responsibility to represent it faithfully. The usual method employed was to
paint the coloured silk and then add diagonal crosshatched lines on top in
gold, mimicking the lustre of the fabric as it would catch the light.
The cloth for King Henry’s doublet, however, was woven entirely from gold thread and embroidered with silver. Given all the intricate work that went into the doublet’s production, not to mention its astronomical cost, it seems funny that he would then hide most of it under that less extravagant red surcoat. But in fact, this was the norm. The most precious textiles were reserved for the under layer, revealing only flashes at the neckline or sleeves.
Henry would also flaunt his cloth of gold openly, most notably at an occasion known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. In June of 1520, he travelled with his entourage to Balinghem near Calais to meet King Francis I of France for two weeks of games, jousting, music and feasts. The premise was to strengthen bonds between the two young monarchs but it also served as an excuse for a lavish display of affluence and one-upmanship. Both kings’ retinues were decked out in their most opulent finery and spectacular tents were erected, including a canvas-covered timber castle for Henry and an entire marquee draped with cloth of gold.
PORTRAIT OF AN ELEGANT LADY BY FRANÇOIS DE TROY, IN THE NEW YORK SALE OF MASTER
PAINTINGS ON 4 JUNE ($20,000–30,000).
Even more sumptuous than cloth of gold was gold tissue. This was produced by weaving the gold weft threads into loops that stood up proudly in a bouclé effect. The golden loops were often woven into velvet, with piles cut at varying levels, to create luxurious relief patterns. Eleanor of Toledo, the wife of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, wore a dress made from such tissued velvet fabric in her famous portrait by Bronzino, painted at almost exactly the same time as Henry’s. The dress fabric is a pure white silk, woven with black cut-velvet designs and a pomegranate motif of gold tissue. The pomegranate was a popular symbol of fertility – a valuable attribute for a noble wife, as any one of Henry’s would attest. The weaving of this cloth required astonishing technical skills, some so complex that they remain a mystery to us even today. Eleanor is not simply flaunting her affluence; she is wearing clothing worthy of her status as wife of Florence’s leader, while also showcasing the skill of the city’s famed weavers.
Cloth of gold tissue was also a favourite of Henry VIII. He liked it so much, in fact, that in 1509 he decreed that only his immediate family be allowed to wear it. Henry’s reign, Henry’s rules. After a few modifications, the Act for Reformation of Excess in Apparel was passed in 1533, regulating the national dress code. According to the act, Dukes and Marquisses were allowed to wear cloth of gold tissue but only in their doublets and sleeveless coats, and only if it cost less than £5 a yard. Anyone of lower standing was forbidden to use the fabric.
AGNOLO BRONZINO’S PORTRAIT OF ELEANOR OF TOLEDO AND HER SON, CIRCA 1550, IN THE
COLLECTION OF THE DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS MUSEUM. COURTESY DETROIT INSTITUTE OF
Such legislation may seem excessive to us now, but the idea behind the edict was to curb unnecessary spending on clothing. It also had the advantage of maintaining a separation of classes, by means of sartorial order. Members of the prospering merchant class imitated the clothes of the aristocracy as a way of displaying their wealth. If Wolf Hall has taught us anything, it’s that social mobility in Tudor times was hardly a fait accompli.
In London’s National Gallery is a portrait of Catherine of Aragon, wife number one. Painted when she was fiercely contesting the annulment of her marriage to Henry so he could marry Anne Boleyn, it depicts her wearing an elaborate, gold-gable headdress and a gown with cloth of gold sleeves. By dressing so impressively, Catherine was hammering home her regal status and rightful position as queen. Perhaps with a few of Eleanor’s fertility pomegranates, she might eventually have produced a healthy male heir and kept her husband. Catherine did, however, retain her head, which is more than can be said for some of her successors.
Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York.
Master Paintings will be on view from 30 May–3 June in New York. Auction: 4 June. Enquiries: +1 212 606 7230.
Old Master & British Paintings, including works from the collections at Castle Howard will be on view from 4–8 July at Sotheby’s London. Auction: 8 July. Enquiries: +44 (0)20 7293 6414.