Hans Holbein | Portrait of Anne of Cleves, set in a turned ivory box

About this Painting

The art of painting miniatures in watercolour was introduced to England in the 1520s by the Flemish artist Gerard Horenbout. When Hans Holbein came to England from Switzerland in 1532 to work for Henry VIII, he was an established painter in oil on panel. But miniatures had become an established court art and Holbein clearly found it advisable to learn this new watercolour art.

In 1539 it became politically necessary for Henry to form an alliance with Protestant Germany and it was suggested that Henry marry one of the daughters of the Duke of Cleves. Henry needed to judge whether to proceed with the marriage treaty and Holbein was despatched to paint Anne and her sister Amelia. When Anne arrived in England, Henry thought her 'nothing so fair as had been reported', but the marriage still took place, in 1540. A few months later Henry decided the alliance was no longer necessary and the marriage was declared null. He designated Anne 'King's sister' and she settled down to life in England.

The ivory box is difficult to date, but is likely to post-date the miniature. It was turned on a lathe. Paint losses at the edge of the miniature, and the lack of a gold edge line on it, imply that it was trimmed to fit into the box. Such skilled turning of ivory was unknown in England at this date but was common in Germany. It could have been made by a German ivory turner, either in Britain or on the Continent. Collections of virtuoso turned ivories were being formed in Dresden and Munich at the time. However the box probably dates from the late sixteenth century, and as such is one of the earliest and most important post-medieval ivories in the collection.

More information about this object is available on The V&A Website.