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The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 2 November 2012 – 14 April 2013.

Reviewed by Lucy Razzall


[1]  The year 2011-2012 saw not one but two major exhibitions of Leonardo da Vinci’s work in London. In an unprecedented achievement, the National Gallery managed to bring together more than half of his surviving paintings from across the world, including a newly attributed work, for their eagerly-awaited blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. At the other end of the Mall, the largest ever exhibition of the Florentine artist’s studies of the body, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, was staged in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. These works on paper are among some of the Royal Collection’s greatest treasures, and as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a further ten Leonardo drawings from the Collection toured regional galleries in Birmingham, Bristol, Belfast, Dundee and Hull. The two London exhibitions were both extraordinarily dazzling, each revealing in their richness just how difficult it is to pin down this iconic figure of the Italian Renaissance, but also reminding us, through the incredibly wide range of subjects, media, and intellectual concerns manifested in Leonardo’s work, how complex any definition of ‘the Renaissance’ must necessarily be. It was timely then, that by the close of the year, the Queen’s Gallery had been given over to a complementary vision of the Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein opened in November 2012, turning the viewer’s gaze away from the Italian focal point that the two Leonardo exhibitions inevitably encouraged, towards the artistic productions of northern Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, paying particular attention to two of this region’s most influential sons: Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

[2]  Curated by Kate Heard and Lucy Whitaker, The Northern Renaissance originally opened in June 2011, at the Royal Collection’s northernmost gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. With over one hundred and thirty individual works on display, this is a large exhibition, although the relatively intimate atmosphere of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace (and even more so at Holyroodhouse), with its several small side-rooms and alcoves, means that the viewer is not overwhelmed by the number of items which the curators have brought together. The significant group of paintings and drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger is one of the strengths of the Royal Collection, and The Northern Renaissance celebrates a fine selection of them, framing the whole exhibition around these pieces and a similarly impressive choice of Dürer’s works.

[3]  We are left in no doubt that Albrecht Dürer was the most outstanding printmaker of his day. The pieces selected for The Northern Renaissance demonstrate his versatility and canny entrepreneurship, as well as his virtuosic skill. The eight images from the first edition of his first illustrated book project, the Apocalypse (issued in 1498, with German text, and then in Latin the same year), would merit a whole exhibition by themselves, such is the detail crammed within each page in this terrifying series of visions of the end-times. Almost as imposing is the two-metre segment of a woodcut frieze, The Great Triumphal Cart (1522), made from eight blocks for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, as part of a printmaking project Maximilian commissioned to celebrate his own rule. This Triumphal Procession was not completed in his lifetime, but Dürer issued the Triumphal Cart after the emperor’s death anyway, partly as a gesture of posthumous glorification, but mainly as a matter of personal financial urgency. At the other end of the scale, one of the most appealing works of the whole exhibition is Dürer’s small, elegant study of a greyhound, a brush and grey-black wash preparation piece for one of the five dogs in his engraving of St Eustace (c.1501). This simple study is comparable with some of the more famous engravings included in the exhibition – A Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), and St Jerome in his Study (1514) – as an illustration of Dürer’s ‘unrivalled sensitivity in depicting texture and form through line alone’ (The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, 73).

[4]  England’s place in the ‘Northern Renaissance’ is suggested most prominently by the beautiful array of portrait drawings and paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger. These include the three-quarter-length (a format that is rare in Holbein’s work) oil portraits of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (c. 1539) and Sir Henry Guildford (1527). The latter is one of Holbein’s most impressive surviving portraits, with lavish use of gold on the sitter’s sleeves, a vivid contrast with the simple green curtain pulled aside behind him. Most stunning of all, however, are the chalk drawings made in preparation for oil paintings of Thomas More, Sir Thomas Elyot, his wife Margaret, and others, the serendipitous discovery of which by Queen Caroline in the drawer of a bureau at Kensington Palace restored them to their deserved place as jewels of the Royal Collection. While these drawings offer us a privileged glimpse into Holbein’s artistic process, they also have a delicate integrity of their own, the faces of their sitters cautiously emerging from the surface of the flesh-coloured prepared paper. Alongside these, it is intriguing to compare the image of Sir John Godsalve (c.1532-3), with its extensive use of watercolour and bodycolour, which suggests that it was intended as a finished work in its own right, rather than a preparatory piece.

[5]  Beyond paintings and works on paper, a significant range of different media from across northern Europe are represented in this exhibition, and this is one of its strengths. Many of the paintings, such as the famous portrait of Erasmus by Quinten Massys (1517), and The Calling of St Matthew by Jans Mertens the Younger (1530s), call attention to the materiality of everyday things. Books, papers, scissors, inkpots, and coins proliferate in these paintings, with an intriguing, almost tactile quality. Sometimes, however, the apparently mundane manifests itself as more messy, and more sinister – most notably of all in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), where seventeenth-century transformations of babies into livestock, pitchers of water, and bundles of groceries reveal an attempt to rework this story of massacre into a less disturbing one of plunder. The vivid engagement with the material world in these Netherlandish works spills over into the whole gallery space, where manuscripts, printed books, sculptures, bronzes, tapestries, and pieces of armour are interspersed amongst the paintings, prints, and drawings mounted on the walls. The inclusion of these examples of moveable decorative arts also adds a striking diversity of scale, from the smallest French portrait miniature to the two large wool and silk tapestries from a Redemption of Man series, made in the southern Netherlands (c.1517-21), and measuring four metres wide and nearly eight metres high. These two examples were acquired by Cardinal Wolsey as part of his collection of over six hundred tapestries. (The bigger space available in London meant that these, as well as a few other items, could be added when the exhibition came down from Edinburgh, although they are not included in the catalogue).

[6]  The section on art in France in this period was another highlight. A series of arrestingly elegant royal portraits by Jean Perréal, Jean Clouet, and his son François, testifies to the popularity of portraiture in the French court at this time. The display, in an appropriately intimate side room, of a series of Clouet portrait miniatures alongside some exquisitely illuminated manuscript books of hours suggests the close relationship between these two forms of artistic production, both of which attracted significant patronage. It is in the French court, moreover, that we can locate some especially organic connections between the ‘Italian’ and ‘Northern’ Renaissances. Francis I was fascinated by Italian artists, and drew important painters and sculptors to his court with lavish financial rewards. Amongst their number, Leonardo da Vinci travelled to France in 1516, and subsequently spent the last years of his life there, working as a designer of architecture, sculpture, and engineering projects. He was also required to provide costume designs for the elaborate masques and tournaments that were so integral to courtly life; the exhibition includes A masquerader as a lansquenet, a figure worked in black chalk, pen and ink, and wash on rough paper, whose swirling silken sleeves suggest the exoticism (and expense) of these festivities. There are also polychromatic designs for furniture and ceilings by other Italian artists who received similar patronage from Francis I, illustrating some of the ways in which Italian ornamental fashions worked their way into the architectural fabric of northern Europe throughout the sixteenth century.

[7] The exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Collection, 2011) features additional contributions by Jennifer Scott, Emma Stuart, Vanessa Remington, Martin Clayton, and Jonathan Marsden. The organization of the volume matches that of the exhibition, with chapters on each principal geographical region (the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, and France) framed by sections focusing more closely on Dürer and Holbein. There is a pleasing attention to useful details: in the discussion of Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts, the eight full-page reproductions are accompanied by the relevant passages from the Book of Revelation, for example, and throughout the catalogue each main image is linked to items in the bibliography. Together, moreover, the exhibition and the catalogue shed some light on another narrative with its origins in the ‘Northern Renaissance’ – that of the Royal Collection itself, which can be said to have begun with the patronage of Hans Holbein the Younger by Henry VIII, for whom this artist produced some of his most important works.

[8]  What comes across quite clearly throughout this exhibition is a sense of the intricacy of the networks in which Dürer and Holbein, and their artistic and intellectual contemporaries, lived and worked. These networks were not necessarily confined to northern Europe, and as the selection of works produced in France in particular conveyed, the connections with the Italian Renaissance were often more integral than marginal. Thus The Northern Renaissance is an exhibition which raises more questions than it answers, but this is no criticism. It is an exhibition which subtly invites us to reconsider the paradigms of periodization and conceptualization, and thus makes an important contribution to an ongoing and wide-ranging critical venture.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge, February 2013