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How our Henry VIII portrait inspired ‘Wolf Hall’ costumes

28 January 2015 by Felicity

Image of The Walker Art Gallery's Henry VIII portrait

The Walker Art Gallery’s Henry VIII portrait

The Walker Art Gallery’s Henry VIII portrait is one of the most recognisable paintings in our collection. It is derived from the Whitehall Mural, painted by Hans Holbein in 1537.

But did you know that the portrait was used as inspiration for the costumes in BBC drama series, ‘Wolf Hall’?

Clare Vyse, Assistant Costume Designer for the program, tells us how portraits of the king proved to be an invaluable resource when designing his costumes:

“We used all the available portraiture when researching King Henry’s clothes for Wolf Hall, but Holbein’s paintings were particularly influential because his work is so clear and detailed – they are such a valuable resource.

The Henry in our story is younger and slimmer than the one in this portrait, but in later episodes he wears an outfit that is based on this very painting.

We had all of his costumes made because we couldn’t find suitable items available to hire anywhere in the world. We even had the red and gold jewels on the front of his doublet in this portrait made.

We were also insistent that everything visible should be hand sewn to preserve authenticity. After all, he’s the king – he had to look the best and brightest in the land!

Henry was such a strong character, there are plenty of transcripts of his speech in existence as well as the paintings, so we know a lot about the way he spoke to people as well as the way he looked. We attempted to reflect this character in different aspects of his clothes.

Colour, texture, silhouette and adornment all add to the overall impression that tells the story of the man. The popular silhouette of this period was, as you can see, very wide shouldered, powerful and masculine.

We thought about it as looking like ‘a moving piece of furniture’ at times. We achieved this with extremely fashionable puffed upper sleeves and wide, rich fur collars. Our Henry also wears a fabulous pair of thigh high, square toed boots with slashed uppers influenced by a pair found on the Mary Rose.

Although our time period doesn’t cover Henry when he was at his most vast, he still had to make a huge impression. I hope everyone feels that we achieved that. To clothe a king, with a very limited time frame and on a budget too, is no small order!”

Our inspiring Henry VIII portrait is currently on display in room 2 at the Walker Art Gallery. Free entry.

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