Unveiling a portrait's secrets: Brighton Museum hosts Holbein masterpiece
Brighton is currently playing host to a masterpiece created by one of the greatest Old Masters of the 16th century.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?) (c.1520s) has been loaned to Brighton Museum by the National Gallery as part its Masterpiece Tour 2018.
I met with Fiona Redford, exhibition coordinator, just before the gallery show opened on Saturday, October 13, to talk about the portrait. Holbein’s painting depicts a female sitter - thought to be Anne Lovell - holding up her arm to accommodate a red squirrel. “It’s so rare to have something of this stature here,” Fiona says. “It’s such a treat for people to have the opportunity to see it, and it’s certainly an exciting part of the job here - hanging a Holbein!”
Holbein is best known today for his famous full-length portrait of Henry VIII, but the painting currently on display in Brighton Museum, which is one of the painter’s earliest English portraits, is thought to be one of his most engaging works.
A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?) has visited The New Art Gallery Walsall and Shetland Museum and Archives earlier this year, and has now come to stay with three other painted faces in the gallery at Brighton’s museum. Holbein’s piece of artwork is said to be one of the most important artworks ever to be exhibited in the city.
“Holbein’s portrait is offset with three pictures from our collection,” Fiona explains. “They are thought to be his north European contemporaries.”
The team at Brighton Museum are hoping that the exhibition will kick start some investigation into these three accompanying pictures. Although they are pretty confident that one of the portraits shows Fredrick III, elector of Saxony, in around 1532, the other two are a bit of a mystery. “Two of the portraits have caused a bit of confusion,” Fiona tells me. “Looking at these portraits and trying to work out who they are is a process of interpretation - almost like a choose-your-own-adventure story! We’re hoping that, like the team at the museum, visitors will want to find out more about who the people in the portraits are, and who painted them.”
The key to identifying the possible sitter of Holbein’s painting is in the squirrel that sits on the female sitter’s arm. This animal features on the coat of arms of the Lovell family, who lived at East Harling in Norfolk - an area for which the starling (like the one pictured on the left hand of Holbein’s painting) is a local symbol.
The three accompanying portraits have been selected not only because they are contemporaries of Holbein, but because they all use text, heraldry and status symbols to depict the sitters’ identity and social standing. “You wouldn’t get your portrait painted for fun in this century,” Fiona explains. “It would be to show your power, to develop a sense of your identity.” The exhibition aims to enlighten visitors as to the process of ‘reading’ portraits, interpreting visual clues and hunting for signs in the clothing, jewellery, or background in the paintings. The museum is hoping that younger audiences will engage with this idea by taking part in some of the gallery’s activities, which include developing their own felt-based coat of arms, and using costume items to create their own symbolic portraits. These pictures can then be shared with the hashtag #HolbeinBrighton, and could be posted on the @brighton_museums Instagram account.
Other examples of old master paintings from the fine art collection are currently being displayed on the North Balcony, and an accompanying exhibition - See Portraits, Be Portraits - shows a variety of artworks which demonstrate the full range of style and technique in portraiture. Artists from Museum Mentors have also responded creatively to the theme by producing individual miniature artworks for a display called Every Miniature Counts.
The Holbein National Gallery Masterpiece Tour 2018 exhibition will be open at Brighton Museum until January 6.