The Real Tudors at the National Portrait Gallery claims to show, with the help of x-ray and digital techniques, the Tudor monarchs as they've never been seen before, a tall claim to be made about some of England's most famous kings and queens.
But it is an impressive exhibition. Free, and occupying no more than the three Tudor Rooms, visitors are indeed treated to some rarely-seen art and artefacts, and the accompanying descriptions are rich with fascinating facts, for Tudor newcomer and expert alike.
The first room is dedicated to the Henrys, and visitors immediately come face-to-face - literally - with Henry VII. In addition to bringing together the few extant portraits of the first Tudor monarch, the NPG has acquired the bust - part of a full-size funeral effigy of Henry VII, made by Pietro Torrigiano shortly after the king's death. Modeled in plaster from Henry VII's face, it is almost certainly a near-perfect likeness. Just the chance to look this monarch in the eyes makes the visit worthwhile.
Henry VII shares the first room with his second son and heir, Henry VIII, whose towering image certainly commands the room. But it is the smaller and lesser-known portraits of Henry that captivate. Although the portrait of him as a young man often appears in the history books
and documentaries, reminding us that he was once considered a paragon of manly skill and
beauty, the other portraits presented with it are hardly ever seen. For the most part they reinforce our other images of the king, with his small facial features and commanding stare, but in other ways they present a different view of the Henry we think we know. As the description points out, there must have been a great number of portraits produced of Henry during his almost 4o year reign, we have a very small sample of that large number. An even smaller number of portraits form our common image of him. We are very far from a 'real' impression of this Tudor, but this exhibit does bring us a little closer.
And even those images have to be seen with a critical eye. One of the most impressive aspects of this exhibition is the information gathered from the extensive restorative and scientific work on the portraits, which yeild new insights. For instance, that famous portrait of the young Henry was significantly changed. The artist painted over an image of a much thinner man, presumably still Henry, giving him fuller features to make him appear more regal, probably upon Henry's accession. Similar changes were made to a portrait of Henry's son, Edward VI, and one can even make out where the date was changed from 1546 to 1547, and the painting altered to reflect Edward's new status.
The highlight of the room Edward shares with his half-sister and heir, Mary I, is a small sheet of paper, a page from Edward's hand-written 'Chronicle', detailing his life and reign. The English is clear and legible, and visitors with even a basic familiarity will be able to read Edward's retelling of the weeks surrounding his coronation, when he heard of the death of his father, and was held in the Tower before being crowned. One begins to feel like they can stretch across the ages when little details are noticed, like where Edward has left dates blank, to be filled when he has double checked precisely which date an event occurred.
For me, the most captivating artefact is also, by far, the smallest. A single ring, which had belonged to Elizabeth I, the last Tudor. Covered in jewels, it opens up, like a locket, to reveal two expert miniature portraits: one of Elizabeth herself, the other of her mother, Anne Boleyn. It is small sign of the affection which Elizabeth might have had for the mother she probably did not remember, and whom she seldom mentioned throughout her reign.
It's a small exhibition, but packs an impressive punch for anyone with interest in the Tudor period. I highly recommend a visit.
The Real Tudors runs at the National Portrait Gallery through 12 March.