Anne Boleyn – NPG 668

Anne Boleyn
NPG 668
Oil on Oak Panel
21 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches
©The National Portrait Gallery

NPG 668 is arguably the most famous portrait of Anne Boleyn that derives from the B Pattern.  Once acquired by The National Portrait Gallery, London this image has continuously been reproduced in books, magazines, movies and even on the occasional t-towel and cushion.  This portrait has become an icon in its own right, to many individuals across the globe, it has become a symbol of British history.

During my last visit to the National Portrait Gallery, I spent approximately forty-five minutes stood in front of NPG 688, listening, and observing what other visitors had to say about the image.  It was only during this visit that I first became aware of the power the painting appears to hold over people.  NPG 668 as an historical artifact is a bit of an enigma, a view into the past that inspires debate which, as yet, has not been truly resolved.  Some believe that the portrait depicts the true identity of one of King Henry VIII’s most famous queens, whilst others were noted to discuss the fact that no known portrait of Anne exists and that this particular copy was painted after her death, so therefore must be a made up image and cannot be relied on.  The National Portrait Gallery themselves note that the portrait was ‘based on a work of circa 1533-1536, when Anne was Queen’, however have produced little documentary evidence to back this theory up.[1] 

Object Description:

The painting is executed in oil on a wooden panel.  Two vertical panels have been used to construct the support on which the image is painted on and the portrait measures in whole 21 3/8 x 16 3/8 inches.   The painting depicts the head and torso of an adult female who appears before a plain green background.  She is turned slightly to the viewers left, though her eyes engage the viewer directly.  Her face is oval in shape, with a high forehead.  Her hair is brown in colour, appears straight, and is worn parted in the centre of the crown and pulled back over her ears and under her headwear.  Her eyes are brown in colour and her eyebrows are thin and arched.  The nose is straight with a high bridge and her lips are small and thin. 

The sitter’s costume includes a French hood, ending just below the jawline.  This is constructed with the use of black fabric that includes the use of an upper and lower billiment of pearls.  A black veil is also seen hanging down at the back and under this the sitter wears a gold coif.  At her neck she wears two strings of pearls with a large letter B pendant of goldsmith work and three hanging pearls suspended from the upper necklace.  A gold chain is also seen at the neck, that falls and disappears into the front of the sitter’s bodice.  The gown itself is constructed of a black fabric, cut squared at the neck and a chemise, embroidered with blackwork protrudes along the entire bodice margin. Large brown fur sleeves can be seen at the bottom edge of the panel.  

An inscription across the top of the panel identifies the sitter as ANNA BOLINA VXOR HENRI. OCTA otherwise translated Anna Bolina, wife of Henry 8.  The inscription has been heavily restored over the course of time and the first two letter of ‘Anna’ have been entirely repainted when a twenty-centimetre addition was added to the left-hand side of the panel.

Recent photographs showing the reverse of the painting indicate that there are no labels or other inscriptions located on the back of the panel surface. During conservation work on the portrait in 1967, it was identified that the surface of the wooden panel had been thinned down at some point during its history and any inscription would have been removed during this process.[2]

Artist Attribution:

Documented as unknown English Artist.

Provenance:

Little information is known regarding the portrait’s early provenance. It was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1882, from the Reynolds Gallery.  No information concerning the portraits provenance prior to the sale was provided and no other information regarding the history of this painting has been located during modern research. The portrait has been on public display at the National Portrait Gallery since its purchase and has only briefly left its walls to undergo conservation work or to be included in other temporary exhibitions across the globe.

Discussion:

This portrait, of all the others associated with the B Pattern has certainly been subject to the most scientific investigation.  Museums and galleries around the world can use several techniques on a painting to identify information such as date of creation, origin and the techniques and sequencing used by the artist to create it.  Several of these techniques have taken place on NPG 668 and a large amount of information has already been documented regarding the gallery’s findings. Due to the fact that of all the paintings associated with the B-Pattern, NPG 668 is the portrait that has undergone the most scientific investigations I have opted to take a fresh look at what we know about this portrait, so far.  

As highlighted above, the portrait was examined in 1967, where it was noted to be in a rather bad state of preservation.  An early photographic image taken of the portrait during this period identifies that the panel surface contained a large vertical crack down the right-hand side. [3]

NPG 668 Prior to 1967
© National Portrait Gallery

This is not uncommon in portraits that have a history of approximately four hundred and fifty years behind them.  The damp climate of the British Isles has taken its toll on many of our historical images painted on wood.  Most have succumbed to clumsy restoration techniques of past generations; structural renovations, overpainting, excessive cleaning and often the panel surface itself has expanded and contracted during time which results in the paint layers becoming weakened. Today, very few portraits painted on a wooden support cannot be described as being in an immaculate state of preservation. 

In an attempt to strengthen the fragile panel of NPG 668, a cradle support was added to the back of the panel surface in 1967.  During a recent examination of the panel as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Making Art in Tudor Britain’ project, it was established that the cradle added was now having a dramatic impact on the portraits condition.  

A fundraising campaign was established by the gallery to help raise the money to stabilise the historic portrait and due to the generosity of public donor’s, conservation work began in the autumn of 2011.[4]  The cradle was removed from the back of the panel allowing the portrait to sit in its natural warped position.  Splits in the panel surface were secured and filled with a conservation adhesive and filler.  A specially designed frame was also constructed to allow the portrait to sit in its natural position when exhibited to enable the public to view the portrait without causing further damage to its support.

Due to the removal of the wooden cradle, dendrochronological testing took place on the portrait in 2012. A previous attempt had been made in 2010, however, the thick wooden cradle attached to the back of the panel made this awkward to complete and an accurate date was unable to be obtained.  On completion of the 2012 tests, it was established that NPG 668 was painted no earlier than 1584, confirming the theory that this copy was indeed a later copy and was probably produced as part of a larger set of paintings.[5]  

NPG 668 has also undergone x-radiography and infrared reflectography.  Both these techniques are used by The National Portrait Gallery to see under the painted surface, identify possible changes in composition and reveal underdrawings produced by the artist prior to the painting process.  Images taken during the infrared reflectography show the B Pattern in all its glory. It was established that the artist who created NPG 668 used a pattern to transferer a pre-existing image of Anne onto the panel prior to painting the portrait.  The graphite under drawing can clearly be seen in the image below and this closely follows the painted outline of the subsequent layers.   Some minor adjustments to the outline of the sitter’s face and shoulders have been made during the painting process however the physical features of the sitter’s face have been followed exactly.

Infrared Reflectography Image of NPG 668
©National Portrait Gallery

To truly understand the demand for Anne’s image and the evolution and use of the B Pattern we first need to understand the complex matter of portrait sets within Tudor England. 

A large amount of information has been written over the course of time regarding sixteenth century art and the production of portraits by some of the more famous artists working within the Royal court and across Tudor England. However, very little information has been documented regarding some of the lesser-known artists who produced portraits sets on a large scale to meet the public demand for imagery.

One main reason for this lack of information is that very little is known and therefore not documented about some of the lesser-known artists and the work produced by them. In the past, most portrait sets produced by some of these lesser-known artists have unfortunately been branded as poor quality with little historical significance.  Museums and galleries around the world have only recently started to take these portraits seriously and use modern technology to truly understand some of the works of art created on a mass scale to fulfil a high demand from Tudor society.

The wooden panel portraiture created in Tudor England that we view today in galleries and country houses across the globe formed a small part of the visual artifacts viewed by the men and women who lived in sixteenth century England.  Houses of the rich and elite members of society were filled with tapestries, painted cloths, and furnishings depicting imagery of some kind.  Clothes, books, and jewellery also became more prominent during the sixteenth century and were also filled with images of significance to the individual who may have commissioned them.  The use and demand for visual imagery did not only exist within domestic settings but town halls, schools and colleges across England were filled with portrait images of political and state figures from history and reformers of the protestant faith.  Art was not only used for decoration purposes but could also be used to demonstrate an individual’s commitment to a specific cause.

From the beginning of the sixteenth century there appears to have been a keen interest for information concerning historical events from the past.  Several plays, ballads, pamphlets, and published works were created throughout this century documenting the stories of either historical royal figures or famous contemporary individuals who had made their mark on history.  With this also came the demand for images of some of the figures promoted.[6]

One of the earliest examples of historical printed text from the sixteenth century is Robert Fabyan’s The New Chronicles of England and France. This book details events from the legendary arrival of Brutus of Troy to the death of King Henry VII and was first published in 1516. The book was subsequently republished in 1533, 1542 and 1559 demonstrating the high demand for the subject. In 1563, John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments was first published in England detailing the stories of men and women from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century who were martyred for their faith. [7]

By the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century plays about historical figures such as those written by William Shakespeare, were being staged in both the Royal Court and playhouses.   Books containing engraved portraits of historical figures started to appear and in 1597 Thomas Tablot’s “Booke Containing the True Portraiture of the Kings of England” was printed followed by Henry Holland’s “Baziliologia” in 1618 and his “Herowlogia Anglica” two years later.  All three books contained many engraved images of Kings, Queens, and prominent figures from the sixteenth century which had been claimed by the authors to be based on authentic likenesses.[8]

Holland’s “Baziliologia” did contain an engraved portrait depicting Anne Boleyn, however this was not based on the B-Pattern which would have been a relatively common image by 1618 and much debate has taken place over the authenticity of this image.  The “Baziliologia” engraving of Anne does look remarkably similar to a depiction of Jane Seymore from the Whitehall mural, by Hans Holbein.  Several other engravings produced in Holland’s book’s such as the well-known Van da Passe engraving of Lady Jane Grey have also now been proven to be based on portraits of other sitters, so we do need to air on the side of caution when it comes to this particular engraving of Anne.

Portrait sets depicting Kings and Queens of England survive today, however the majority have been broken up and only a small amount survive in some sort of entirety.  Anne Boleyn was generally one of three of King Henry VIII’s queens depicted within sets of English monarchs and their consorts along with Katherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour. These three wives were included in the sets because they all produced a child during their marriage and therefore a future monarch.  Anne herself was Queen Mother to the reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth I and although Anne’s marriage was never officially legitimised during the reign of her daughter her image was often included within portrait sets and Elizabeth herself, does appear to have acknowledged both her parents within her own iconography during her long reign.

Many portraits depicting Anne which where once part of a larger set and derive from what I refer to as the B Pattern, survive in public and private collections around the world.  Today, those that have been published and are well known to us have often been grouped together and referred to as “posthumous” dating to “the later period of the sixteenth century”[9]  

When creating portrait sets, artists appear to have gone to every effort in attempts to locate written descriptions, previous portraits, illustrations, and effigies to support them to create panel portraits of individuals both past and present.  We know for example that the many later portrait patterns depicting Elizabeth of York was based on another painting which was probably painted from life currently held in the Royal Collection.

Elizabeth of York
RCIN 403447
Oil on Panel
© Royal Collection Trust

Initially, the Royal Collection portrait was thought to date to the late sixteenth century, however current research has identified that this portrait may have been painted in the late fifteenth century.[10] Subsequent copies of this portrait indicate that a pattern was created and used by workshops when producing further copies.  A large majority of the surviving copies all show the same characteristics, brown eyes, light red hair, pale complexion, and a red gown with ermine trim. This suggest that the patterns created also contained notes or visual reminders for the artists of how the final portrait should be finished, much like the provisional drawings produced by Hans Holbein for some of his major works.

One perfect example of an early portraits set is a small group of portraits again held within the royal collection.  These painting’s depict King Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III and all are of similar format and size and include the characteristic red demask background.

Initially, as seen with the portrait of Elizabeth of York these painting’s where again thought to date to the latter half of the sixteenth century.  Recent dendrochronology testing has identified that all three paintings were actually constructed from the same tree which was cut down no earlier than 1504.  This once again demonstrates the importance of modern technology within the world of art history and the possibility that some of the portraits created for the use of sets could date to an earlier period than initially thought.[11]

When looking at the surviving portraits depicting Anne Boleyn, two specific portrait patterns begin to emerge. The first is the bust length pattern seen in NPG 668, NGI.549 and the Rosse Portrait.

The second is a pattern that has been slightly extended to incorporate Anne’s hands and a rose which can be seen in the alternative version on display at Hever Castle, the Radclyffe portrait and the Shindler portrait.  Multiple copies of both patterns survive today, however paintings derived from the second pattern appears to be scarcer than that of the first.

Only a small amount of the portraits depicting Anne have undergone dendrochnology testing to establish an accurate date of creation.  Some can easily be dismissed as later copies, produced during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A large proportion of the portraits depicting Anne remain untested which makes it difficult to determine what order of dates each portrait was produced and the possibility that one of the portraits may be an earlier copy possibly painted from life.

Unfortunately, to date, I have been unable to locate any written documentation relating to the production of a portrait of Anne Boleyn during her actual lifetime. There does appear to be a number of sixteenth century references regarding the use and collection of her image after her death.  Unfortunately, these references are vague, and it is hard to distinguish if any of these portraits were in fact an authentic image or one of the many portraits based on the B pattern that where apparently created at a later period.

The first reference to an image of Anne dates from 1559, and is taken from several written descriptions regarding the events that took place during the coronation of Anne’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I.  All descriptions refer to a large stage being built and used as part of the pageant at the upper end of Gracechurch Street.  It appears that this stage was designed to represent Queen Elizabeth I’s lineage and not only included an image of her royal grandparents King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York but also an image representing her father and mother King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  Unfortunately, these descriptions provide little detail as to what the images of the figures looked like, however, they do provide evidence that there was, at least, a recognisable image of Anne in 1559.[12]

The second reference is taken from 1577 and is listed within an inventory of the possessions of Archbishop Matthew Parker at the time of his death at Lambeth Palace.  The inventory lists thousands of items within the palace including a portrait of “Quene Anne Bolleyn” displayed in the gallery. Matthew Parker was in fact Anne’s personal Chaplain and it would be difficult to believe that an individual who was such a close associate of Anne would have owned a portrait that was not a reasonable likeness of her.[13] 

The third and probably most famous reference comes from a collection of inventories documenting the extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and books collected by the 1st Baron of Lumley (John Lumley 1533-1609).  Lumley’s collection consisted of over one hundred and ninety portraits scattered across his residences of Lumley Castle, Nonsuch Palace and Harts Street. His walls were not only hung with paintings of family members, but portraits of royals and nobilities demonstrating a list of who’s who, in England.  In an inventory made in 1590 there is a reference to a portrait of “Queen Anne Bulleyne.” As the portrait is listed among other portraits described as “Statuary” we may then presume that the painting was in fact full-length as portraits of half-length or small in size are referred to as “scantling.”[14]  Upon John Lumley’s death some of his collection passed to his nephew Thomas Howard Earl of Arundel though the vast amount remained at Lumley Castle were the collection eventually passed to the Earls of Scarborough.  Some of the collection was subsequently sold through auction in 1785 and 1807, however no portrait of Anne Boleyn is listed among the entries for either auction, and this particular portrait remains lost today.[15]

As this article demonstrates the use of modern technology is now answering some of the unanswered questions regarding the production and use of portrait sets from Tudor England.  We are now finally starting to get a good understanding of the techniques and processes used to create these images. From the references discussed above regarding the use of Anne’s image we can see that there was at least some sort of recognisable image of Anne Boleyn used from 1557 onwards.   It would certainly be of high interest to locate all surviving examples of the B Pattern and have them undergo some of the testing which has taken place on NPG 668.  Modern science will enable us to identify once and for all what order these images came in and if there is any possibility that one may be a life portrait.   


[1] The National Portrait Gallery, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00142/Anne-Boleyn?LinkID=mp00109&search=sas&sText=anne+boleyn&role=sit&rNo=0 accessed September 2020

[2] Heinz Archive, London, Object File NPG668. Further information on conservation assessment and treatment which has taken place on this portrait can be located in this file.

[3] My sincere thanks to Roland Hui for providing me with a copy of this image.

[4] https://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/making-art-in-tudor-britain/case-studies/conservation-treatment-of-a-portrait-of-anne-boleyn accessed September 2020

[5] Heinz Archive, London, Object File NPG668

[6] For further information see: Woolf. Daniel, R, The circulation of the Past: England’s Historical Culture 1500-1730, Oxford University Press, 2003

[7] Ellis. Henry, The New Chronicles of England and France in Two Parts by Robert Fabyan, London, 1811 page: xiii–xviii

[8]Hind M Arthur, Engravings in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 1955

[9] Mould. Philip LTD, Lost Faces Identity and Discovery in Tudor Royal Portraiture,2007, Page. 59

[10] Tyers. Ian, Tree-ring Analysis of Panel Painting from the Ryal Collection, Dendrochronology Consultancy Ltd, January 2013

[11] Tyers. Ian, Tree-ring Analysis of Panel Painting from the Ryal Collection, Dendrochronology Consultancy Ltd, January 2013

[12] I am grateful for the fantastic research into these descriptions produced and published by Natalie Grueninger at Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I’s Coronation (onthetudortrail.com), accessed January 2021

[13] Archaeologia of Miscellaneous Tracts, Society of Antiquaries of London, 1844, Vol XXX, Page. 11

[14] Walpole Society, Vol I, 1918, Page.21

[15]The Getty provenance database,  http://piprod.getty.edu/starweb/pi/servlet.starweb

4 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn – NPG 668

  1. This was really fascinating! I did not know that the portrait of Elizabeth of York in the Royal Collection had been found to be from the end of the fifteenth and not the end of the sixteenth. (Or at least the beginning of the sixteenth.) That is absolutely amazing! What a gamechanger 😊 I am really enjoying your articles about our beloved B Pattern.
    About the portrait of Anne Boleyn that was in the Lumley Collection, Richard Masefield in that article at the Anne Boleyn Files that we all remember, https://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/real-face-anne-boleyn-historical-novelist-richard-masefield/ wrote that: “The original painting re-appears in the records approximately 150 years after the Hoskins copy was made; as ‘Lot 33’ in a sale catalogue for 1773, which identifies it as the ‘full length Anne Boleyn’ from the Lumley collection, subsequently cut down ‘due to damage by fire when in the Temple’”
    He references Strong. I remember reading about it appearing in the West sale somewhere else as well, but right now where escapes me
    I completely agree with your conclusion that all of the B Pattern Anne Boleyns ought to be tested. Perhaps one of them is from her lifetime after all?
    How interesting that there was a recognisable image of Anne already in 1559! That was really cleverly put together. Perhaps the B necklace was part of that …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking up close at the ‘NPG 668’ example, it is possible to see evidence of the way the artist of the original might have arranged the sitting, in terms of the lighting, and more generally in terms of technique. This is shown in the angle of Anne’s position, the reflection of the artist’s lighting in her eyes, on her nose, and similarly in the reflection of light on several pearls on the top of her headdress. Even while this example is an Elizabethan copy, this might offer clues as to the technique and set-up used by the artist of the original. As your research shows, other images of Anne copied later clearly show the same sitter, but in some she is sitting/standing/looking towards a different angle.

    I was interested to view some online commentaries recently – such as one about Vermeer – that offered fair detail about the way some artists of the C16 and C17 might have been trained to set up and arrange their sittings, in terms of lighting, angles, equipment and so on.

    Best wishes with your ongoing research.

    Liked by 1 person

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