Traditionally known as “King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons”, The Holbein is an oil on 11/12 oak panels, in a late 17th Century gadrooned giltwood frame, which shows the King celebrating the Act of Union between the Company of Barbers and the Guild or Fellowship of Surgeons in 1540. Whilst it was commissioned to celebrate this Act of Union, it was probably painted in 1542 and has remained in the possession of the Company ever since.
In the picture the King sits on a throne wearing State robes and the Order of the Garter and holding the Sword of State. He is depicted handing a Charter with the Great Seal to Thomas Vicary in the presence of his surgeons and barbers on his left and his physicians and apothecary on his right, the majority named. The Charter and Seal are artist’s licence as the union was established by Act of Parliament. In the foreground is a Turkey carpet on rush matting and in the background a floral tapestry wall hanging on which is superimposed a cartouche containing a Latin inscription which translates as follows:
“To Henry VIII, best and greatest King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Head of the English and Irish Church, the Company of Surgeons with vows in common consecrate these lines: Sadder than ever had the plague profaned the land of the English, harassing men’s minds and besetting their bodies; God, from on high pitifully regarding so notable a mortality, bade thee undertake the office of a good Physician
The light of the Gospel flies round about thee on glowing wings; that will be a remedy for a mind diseased, and by thy counsel men study the monuments of Galen; and every disease is expelled by speedy aid. We therefore, a suppliant band of thy Physicians, dedicate to thee with reverence this house; and mindful of the gift with which thou, O Henry, hast blest us, we wish the greatest blessings on thy rule also.”
On the King’s left side are his Serjeant-Surgeon, Thomas Vicary (Master 1530, 1541, 1546, 1548, 1557), his surgeons, Sir John Ayliffe (Master 1538), James Monforde (Warden 1540, 1543) and Richard Ferris (Master 1551, 1562) and his barbers, Nicholas Simpson (Master 1537), Edmund Harman (Master 1540), and John Penn (Master 1539). Others portrayed and named are Nicholas Alcock, Christopher Salmon (Master 1552) and William Tilley (Warden 1540, 1546). On the King’s right side are his two physicians, Dr. John Chambers and Sir William Butts and his apothecary Thomas Alsop.
The painting was damaged on the left side in the Great Fire of 1666 and was only saved by being moved to the Anatomy Theatre nearby which survived the fire, the Hall being totally destroyed. During the second world war it was moved to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth for safe keeping; a wise move as the Hall was destroyed in December 1940.
For permission to reproduce an image of the Holbein in a publication please contact the Bridgeman Art Library