I have the feeling that I’m at his fur-covered shoulder: him, Thomas Cromwell. Henry VIII’s right-hand, and best executive officer. For the last two weeks I have been living in the pages of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winners, and the characters are real people to the reader. I’ve found a book of drawings by Hans Holbein – Drawings from Windsor Castle. Cromwell isn’t in here, but Thomas More is, and his father, son, daughter-in-law; Jane Seymour; Thomas Wyatt, Cromwell’s friend; William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, and Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, who likes to be called ‘Monseigneur’. And ‘A Lady, Unknown’, above whose head is lettered, ‘Anna Bollein Queen’. They’re exquisite drawings, beautifully rendered, intended for transferring onto board for commissioned portraits – you can see the pin-holes in the outlines where dust or chalk would have been pressed through. But the faces are alive: real people.
I go to the National Portrait Gallery, in search of Thomas Cromwell – and here he is, in a painting by Holbein, looking suspicious. Henry, too, massive, small eyes in a slab of face. Anne Boleyn, and a beautiful painting of Mary – ‘Bloody’ Mary. But the drawings in my book – (‘Awarded to Michael Munday for Good Work, June 1958′) – are more alive than the formal paintings, exquisite shading and modelling of faces, and rough but lively marks for the clothes.
There’s a drawing session at 6.30: artist Marc Woodhead and his assistants pass round paper and boards, now in the Stuart galleries, to about 40 of us – all ages, varying abilities, but all keen. The task: draw the people around you, in the context of the gallery. People drawing each other, watched by the dead from their frames. The more you look, the more alive they become…
Illustration of Cromwell after Holbein, and drawing in the NPG