HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

Sir Richard Southwell

Oil on wood, 48 x 38 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Richard Southwell (1504-1564) was one of Cromwell's most loyal and unscrupulous followers. As might be surmised from the somewhat cold and sinister expression on Southwell's face, he has come down to posterity as one of the most calculating and treacherous members of Henry VIII's court. He became a creature of Thomas Cromwell and was instrumental in aiding Richard Rich in his attempts to force the imprisoned Sir Thomas More to incriminate himself in 1532. Southwell also made accusations against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey, that led to the latter's execution. Cromwell employed him as a general factotum during the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1539. He was knighted (after Cromwell's downfall) in 1542. Southwell later abjured Protestantism, and thus found favour under Mary I (1553-58), but as a result he was shunned in Elizabeth's reign. He died c.1564.

The darkly penetrating survey of the cold gaze of the sitter certainly does not flatter, but dares not condemn. Did Holbein's detached professionalism as a painter came under strain when depicting the agent of destruction of More, his first major patron? The simplicity of the background and the emphatic linearity of the design accentuate the overall sense of calculation, as though the artist wanted to concentrate on abstract elements. In this the picture has an affinity with Bronzino's portraits of the contemporary Medici court at Florence. Appropriately, the work was later given by the great connoisseur and collector, the Earl of Arundel, to Cosimo II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in the seventeenth century.