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Shetland To Host Hans Holbein Masterpiece

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shetland Museum and Archives is set to play host to a Holbein masterpiece, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. It’s coming to Shetland from the National Gallery in London, on a three-venue tour which will begin at the New Art Gallery in Walsall and end at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg, Germany in late 1497 or early 1498 and was taught painting by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. He grew up at a time of rapid transformation in Europe, where the Reformation began to take root in the second decade of the 16th century. Whilst he may have been sympathetic to it, he painted for clients in both the reformed and unreformed strands of religious thought and seems to have been skilful in navigating the controversies of his times.

He grew up at a time of rapid transformation in Europe

In these turbulent times, the young Holbein absorbed ideas from all over Europe, including especially the humanist thinking of Erasmus. He spent time in Switzerland, France and Italy before eventually settling in England. He worked there between 1526 and 1528 and returned in 1532, remaining until his death in 1543, a victim of the London plague.

One of the trends in the renaissance was a move away from the religious imagery that had formed almost all the output of earlier generations of painters. Partly, this was because renaissance curiosity drove artists to explore new subjects. However, a decline in the number of religious commissions was also a by-product of the Reformation.

Holbein the Younger became a highly-skilled secular portrait painter and, during his time in England, he created many works featuring the Tudors. His portraits of Henry VIII are particularly well-known; the most famous of all was actually destroyed by fire in 1698 but had by then been widely copied; others survive.

The painting that we’re going to see in Shetland is thought to have been painted during Holbein’s first sojourn in England; the style is comparable with Holbein’s other work during those years. The woman represented in the painting is thought to be Anne Lovell; experts have deduced this partly from the inclusion of the squirrel, a creature that features in the Lovell family’s coat of arms.

Quite apart from the skill that the portrait displays, it obviously carries all the very rich historical resonance associated with the artist. As well as Henry VIII’s court, Holbein mixed with many leading intellectual and artistic figures, including Sir Thomas More, Erasmus and Albrecht Durer.

it obviously carries all the very rich historical resonance associated with the artist

Needless to say, Shetland Museum Curator, Dr Ian Tait, is delighted that the painting will be coming to Shetland, since it “will give islanders the unique opportunity to see, and enjoy, a masterpiece by a world-class artist, thanks to the kindness of a world-class gallery."

The painting will go on display on 4 May and can be seen in Shetland until 15 July, which means that many visitors to the islands, as well as local people, will have the chance to see it. I, for one, am really looking forward to its arrival.

If you can’t make it to the Shetland showing, the Walsall display has already begun and runs until 22 April. The work will be in Brighton from 10 October 2018 until 6 January 2019.

Other important works are displayed from time to time in Shetland. In recent years, the Shetland Museum has hosted the St Ninian’s Isle treasure, normally kept in Edinburgh, and the British Museum’s Gayer-Anderson Cat, pictured below.

Posted in: Creative Scene

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