Gallery view of a painting of a young Henry VIII

Uncovering Henry's Secrets

Editor's note: Paintings conservator Christine Slottved Kimbriel of Cambridge University’s Hamilton Kerr Institute in the United Kingdom visited the Denver Art Museum to study our portrait of Henry VIII. What she found surprised us! Here’s her report.

Paintings made in the early 1500s in England are extremely rare—few have survived these 500 years. They’re also a mystery. They were rarely signed, little documentary evidence about them has come down to us, and they were painted in a style that limited an artist’s individual expression. How, then, to identify a particular artist and link him to a particular painting? That was the challenge with the Berger Collection’s portrait of a boyish, beardless Henry VIII, painted when he was in his teens.

My work had begun in Cambridge, where my colleagues and I had been conducting research on four Tudor royal portraits—three of the young Henry VIII and one of his father, Henry VII. All four had been identified as having been painted on wood from the same oak tree. Remarkably, the Berger picture was shown also to have been painted on wood from that same tree! That fact, plus the Berger picture’s stylistic similarity to the other four portraits, strongly suggested the group were painted by the same artist. And among the prime candidates was Meynnart Wewyck, an artist from the Netherlands who was court painter to both Henry VII and Henry VIII. If I could demonstrate through technical analysis that the Berger portrait had been painted in much the same way as the other four, I would be able to add another Tudor royal portrait to the growing corpus of paintings thought to have been created by Meynnart Wewyck.

Portrait of Henry VIII as a young man

Attributed to Meynnart Wewyck, Henry VIII, about 1509. Oil paint on wood panel, housed in its original frame. Gift of the Berger Collection Educational Trust, 2021.29.

Working in the DAM’s conservation lab, I examined the Berger picture under the microscope, analyzed the paint using a technique called x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, and took tiny paint samples for chemical analysis back in the lab in Cambridge. An imaging specialist using a technique called infrared reflectography contributed images of what lay beneath the top paint layer. And here’s what we found:

  • The Berger picture once had a pale blue background just like one of the other portraits of Henry VIII. And we found that two other portraits among the group of four, both now with a green background like the Berger picture, also started out with a blue background. The green in all three pictures likely was painted over the blue near in date to the pictures' creation, and so this new color could signal a change in taste—perhaps even by Henry VIII himself.
  • Hidden beneath the Berger picture’s top paint layer are black lines forming a drawn design, or template, for the entire composition, indicating that the picture was carefully planned out in advance. The "blue background" portrait of Henry VIII was found also to have a drawn template under the top paint layer— and it’s nearly identical to the Berger picture’s template in size and placement of the features.
  • Under the top paint layer of the Berger picture frame are remnants of bright orangered paint and traces of gold leaf, suggesting that it once was decorated with the same gold, red, and green-and-white striped “barber’s pole” motif as the portrait of Henry VII, in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries.

More work remains to definitively assign the name of Meynnart Wewyck to the Berger portrait and its four "cousins," but we’re on the way!

Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge the work of Ian Tyers, dendrochronologist, who undertook the dendro on the five linked portraits; Pam Skiles, senior paintings conservator at the DAM, who facilitated the examination and did the initial infrared examination; Natalie Feinberg Lopez, architectural conservator, who was contracted in to do the XRF analysis; and Kathleen Stuart, former Berger Collection curator.