Sir Richard Southwell (1502/3–1564) rose to prominence in the last decade of Henry VIII’s reign. During this tumultuous period, which started with the rupture between the English sovereign and the papacy, the court was purged of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the king. Southwell played an important role in the trials of Sir Thomas More and, later, Henry Howard, both of whom were charged with treason and executed. Southwell’s portrait, by contrast, underscores his allegiance to Henry VIII. For instance, the inscription on the background refers to the regnal year rather than the calendar year. The fashionable hat badge, in the form of a female bust, also ties Southwell to the culture of luxury and erudition that characterized the Henrician court.
In 1536 Holbein was appointed as the royal painter to Henry VIII. Almost immediately, Holbein was inundated with new commissions for drawn and painted portraits, including this one for one of Henry’s new favored courtiers, Richard Southwell. Southwell was a witness at the trial of Sir Thomas More and responsible for removing More’s books from his cell in the Tower of London. Holbein never shied away from a completely naturalistic rendering of his sitter’s physical appearance, and in fact, his paintings were prized for this very aspect of realism. The scar on Southwell’s chin reflects Holbein’s careful representation of his sitter. In the preparatory drawing for the portrait, Holbein so deftly rendered Southwell’s scar that it was once thought to be damage to the paper support itself rather than part of Holbein’s portrayal.
Although Holbein does not present a very grandiose or overbearing image of Southwell, the prominent badge on his hat highlights Southwell’s aspiring social and court position. As shown throughout the exhibition, such jewels indicated the sitter’s erudition and fashionable taste, or their desire to be perceived as such. In the jewelry display cases behind you, there is a hat badge with a representation of a Roman man very similar in format to the badge on Southwell’s hat.
Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi