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Wolf Hall Wednesday: The Art of Historical Fiction

Wolf Hall Wednesday: Week #5

I really love it when writers talk about art, referring to specific paintings, their colors, their lines, what they mean to the characters. In books like Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and Tracy Chevalier's The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the paintings can almost be seen as characters themselves. Such is the case with the paintings Hilary Mantel describes in Wolf Hall, putting the work of Hans Holbein the Younger into context. Holbein spent several years in and around Henry VIII's court, painting numerous important people of the court including the king himself, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Catherine Howard and the star of this particular show, Thomas Cromwell.

Damian Lewis (Homeland) as King Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

In Week #2 we took a look at Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas More and family. Last week I shared a sketch of Anne Boleyn attributed to Holbein—in which she looks nothing like Claire Foy, the actress who stars as Anne in the BBC adaptation of Mantel's book. I know that Holbein makes an appearance in the television series—played by Thomas Arnold who also appears in the War & Peace adaptation I wrote about yesterday—and I'm curious to see what they do with him. 

During this week's reading of Wolf Hall, Holbein brings his painting of Thomas Cromwell to Cromwell's home at Austin Friars. I'd love to see the painting, and Cromwell's reaction to it in the program. Played by Mark Rylance, Cromwell is quite a bit thinner than the Holbein depiction, but since the characters in Mantel's novel remark on the painting making him look heavier than he was, that works. In 2000, David Hockney and film physicist Charles Falco put forward a theory that as early as 1430 artists were "using either concave mirrors or refractive lenses to project the images of objects illuminated by sunlight onto his board/canvas. The artist then traced some portions of the projected images." Would that account for some of the rotund figures Holbein gives us?

Mantel, who paints Cromwell in a more nuanced light than history or previous writers, describes Cromwell as being at first too shy to look at Holbein's portrait. The author even has the painter reject Cromwell's plain looking and well worn bible in favor of a fancier tome; that's how decent, and down-to-earth a guy Cromwell is.
"He looks at the pictures lower edge, and allows his gaze to creep upward. A quill, scissors, papers, his seal in a little bag, and a heavy volume, bound in blackish green: the leather tooled in gold, the pages gilt-edged. Hans had asked to see his Bible, rejected it as too plain, too thumbed. He had scoured the house and found the finest volume he owned on the desk of Thomas Avery. It is the monk Pacioli's work, the book on how to keep your books, sent to him by his kind friends in Venice.
He sees his painted hand, resting on the desk before him, holding a paper in a loose fist. It is uncanny, as if he had been pulled apart, to  look at himself in sections, digit by digit. Has has made his skin smooth as the skin of a courtesan, but the motion he has captured, that folding of the fingers, is as sure as that of a slaughter-man's when he picks up the killing knife. He is wearing the cardinal's turquoise. ...
 ...He raises his eyes, to his own face. It does not much improve on the Easter egg which Jo painted. Hans had penned him in a little space, pushing a table to fasten him in."

When his household comes in to view the painting— he has a large family including nieces and nephews who live with him—none are overwhelmed. His niece Alice says Holbein has made him look 'rather stout, More than he needed to', the Spanish ambassador says one never thinks of Cromwell alone; he is always with people and always watching them. He goes on to say —
"Still. Looking at that, one would be loathe to cross you. To that extent, I think Hans has achieved his aim."
Acclaimed British actor and stage director Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall

 Which makes you wonder whether Cromwell really looked as menacing as all that, or whether it was for show. Until Cromwell finally shows the portrait to his son, Gregory, the sensitive one.

"He turns to the painting. "I fear Mark was right."
"Who is Mark?"
"A silly little boy who runs after George Boleyn. I once heard him say I looked like a murderer."
Gregory says, "Did you not know?" 
Ah! So at least Mantel agrees that Cromwell looks like the villain others make him out to be. From what I know of Cromwell's life, I fear his deeds will indeed match his looks soon enough.

Every Wednesday I post my thoughts on my weekly reading of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies before the six-part adaptation comes to America on April 12th on Masterpiece Theatre.