The National Portrait Gallery, in London, has fixed a glaring hole in its Tudors collection with the acquisition of a portrait of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, who managed to avoid divorce or beheading but not an early death.
“It really is filling quite a gap,” said the curator Charlotte Bolland, as the portrait went on public display for the first time on Thursday. “Previously, the only portrait we had of Jane Seymour was a mid-17th century engraving. We had no painted representation of her, so this is very exciting, she is an incredibly important sitter.”
The portrait was acquired in 2016 at auction and has gone through a lengthy conservation process, with layers of varnish and over-painting removed. The painting appears much finer and is a more important work than previously thought, the gallery said.
The painting is a copy of the most famous portrait of Seymour still in existence, the work by Hans Holbein in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, Austria.
The version now with the National Portrait Gallery, in central London, had hung for nearly a century in a Cambridge townhouse, its owners assuming it was a Victorian copy of the Holbein. It became clear only after the tree-ring dating before its auctionthat it was from the 16th century.
The gallery’s lengthy technical analysis and conservation has also indicated the work is not simply a copy but did most likely come from Holbein’s studio.
Seymour gave Henry VIII his only male son. She died in 1537 because of post-natal complications and her portrait now hangs near a painting of her son, Edward VI, shown at the age of nine in all his finery with his legs wide apart, mimicking his father. He too died early, aged 15.
The gallery also has portraits of three other wives of Henry VIII – Anne Boleyn (who was beheaded), Catherine Parr (who survived her marriage to Henry), and Catherine of Aragon (who was divorced).
The room does not display any painting of Anne of Cleves (another wife whom Henry quickly divorced), although it has engravings. Nor is there a painting of Catherine Howard (beheaded as a teenager) who remains the greatest mystery of the king’s six wives, pictorially, in that there are only two possible portraits from her one year as queen.
Bolland said the gallery’s Seymour portrait was particularly interesting because it was incomplete – probably about 90% finished and abandoned with missing elements such as the gilding in the headdress, jewels and sleeve.
She said possible theories about why the portrait was abandoned include the possibility that Seymour’s sudden death reduced the market for images of the queen; or perhaps it was linked to the downfall of the Seymour family. Another more melodramatic theory links it to Holbein’s unexpected death in 1543 due, possibly, to the plague.
“You think one thing that is going to make a studio suddenly shut down on one day and everybody walk away is plague,” said Bolland. “We can only hypothesise, but it offers a really tantalising insight into workshop practice. Someone has put an enormous amount of effort and skill in to the painting and then has just left it at the last moment.”
• Jane Seymour is now on display in Room 1 of the National Portrait Gallery