Hans Holbein, who was born in Augsburg in about 1497, has a needlework stitch named after him- not that he ever knew it. Double running stitch involves running a thread in one direction but leaving sufficient space to repeat the process on the return journey. It ensures the pattern at the back of the fabric and the pattern on the front are identical and it is often used in blackwork embroidery. The name stems from the amount of embroidery of the style depicted by Holbein in his portraits.
Young Hans learned his trade from his father Holbein the Elder and, in all likelihood, from the town’s goldsmiths then went to Basel in about 1514 where he set about creating murals in the town hall and also created a set of woodcuts to illustrate the ‘Dance of Death’. Basically the message was that you can be having a lovely time but Death is just around the corner (cheery).
He became part of the cultural scene of Basel and received commissions from the humanist scholar Bonifacius Amberach and of the Dutch scholar Erasmus. However, the world was becoming more difficult for artists in Basel. The regime began to impose a strict censorship on the press.
Armed with a letter of introduction from the humanist Erasmus to Thomas More, Holbein arrived in England in about 1526. He worked in England for two years before returning briefly to Basel. In 1532 he returned once more to England where he spent the last eleven years of his life, having left his wife and children in Basel. During that time he painted approximately 150 portraits -including Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Many of the portraits include detailed observations of fabrics decorated by blackwork embroidery made popular in the court of Henry VIII by his first wife Catherine of Aragon who famously stitched her husband’s shirts for him.
Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour, is pictured wearing a chemise with blackwork embroidery on the cuffs under her gown and brocade sleeves. In fact Holbein was asked to paint all of Harry’s wives de jour while he was Henry’s court painter. A sketch of an unknown woman may be Anne Boleyn – in which case someone either has a very valuable portrait tucked away in their attic somewhere or when Henry had her arrested and executed it ended up on a bonfire. He was sent off to paint portraits of potential brides including a full length portrait of Christina of Denmark which looks very demure until you realise that the widowed Duchess of Milan has removed her gloves which in a polite world symbolises intimacy. More famously he painted the picture of Anne of Cleves causing Henry to ‘swipe right’ in modern language. Holbein obviously saw something in Anne that Henry didn’t as the image and the reality didn’t match up in Henry’s mind. It was probably just as well that executing artists wasn’t the done thing! Holbein also provided a portrait of Catherine Howard.
Inevitably Holbein’s patronage by the Crown meant that everyone wished to sit for their portrait and since blackwork embroidery was fashionable ruffs and cuffs abound in embroidery. Everything about Holbein’s portraits makes a statement and for later art historians the symbols contained in his works have often helped to identify the sitters or given a clue as to the way that they identified themselves in Henry’s renaissance world. It turns out that they weren’t all courtiers. Many of them were merchants from the Hanseatic league sending portraits home to their families. Jane Pemberton, pictured below, with blackwork collar and cuffs, was the wife of a cloth merchant.
And the man couldn’t resist a pun – A lady with a squirrel and a starling is likely to be Anne Lovell of East Harling. I’ve posted about her before : https://thehistoryjar.com/tag/anne-lovell .
Squirrels feature on the Lovell coat of arms and Harling and starling rhyme – pushing it a bit I know but it does demonstrate the lengths educated Renaissance types went to to make a point. And people did keep squirrels as pets. They even turn up in everything from the Lutterell Psalter to depictions of eighteenth century children with their pet squirrel. Inevitably they have a range of meanings apart from identifying anonymous ladies in quilted hats. Which brings me to the tricky element of symbolism which depends on context – diligence, infidelity, greed, voraciousness and in some medieval bestiaries a squirrel was such an angry creature that on occasion it might even die from rage…presumably because a some wit made an inappropriate pun about cracking nuts – and I’ll leave you to work out the symbolism to go with that!
Squirrel hair- vair -from the backs and bellies of the winter coat of squirrels (it was combed out) was very popular at the court of King John but I have no idea how I know that! It is also theorised that all these pet squirrels and nifty winter squirrel fur outfits contributed to the spread of leprosy in medieval Europe.
Back to Holbein – he is likely to have died from plague in 1543 and is buried in an unmarked grave – probably somewhere in Aldgate where he lived which means that cross-rail has probably disturbed his final resting place. His will is dated the 29 November and it provides for two illegitimate children in England.
And why this particular post – well, I’ve arrived at the point where I’ve got to embroider a squirrel into the blackwork coif (#unstitched coif). I know some stitchers have opted for an acorn motif while another prefers pinecones. I’m still making my mind up but I think I want to use a stitch that create the impression of a luxuriant tail and tufty ears – I’m not sure I can come up with a motif that would be appropriate for a small angry creature that might expire from rage.
Foister, Susan, Holbein in England, (London: Tate Publishing, 2006)
Walker-Meikle, Kathleen, Medieval Pets, (Boydell Press, 2012)
Werness, Hope, Animal Symbolism in Art (London: Continuum, 2006)