The Man In Red


As we have lately been learning, people who are 500 years old can arrest you with a gaze, if they are painted right.

Our last subject caught us with his ingenuous charm; this next, with his splendour. And yet we may never know who either of them are, and they hang just a few footfalls away from each other at Hampton Court, one of the great English palaces.

The man in red is life-size; and he wears scarlet.

Jewelled scarlet shoes, scarlet hose and doublet. Magnificent scarlet robes adorning foursquare athletic shoulders. A scarlet brooch on his scarlet cap.

A frame full of possibility, a boy, yet a man. And young as I shall never be again; someone with just the grizzle of a beard and all the cool arrogance of someone who has not really, completely, met life yet.

He baffles the academics, who are uncertain about his identity and how he could have been painted thus, standing as only a young king should, in a powerful war-ready pose, head-to-toe in such an unusual colour.

Charles II was not at all happy, on his return to England, that the royal art collection had been dispersed. He set about reconstructing his heritage. In 1660 he was sold a collection which included this one. It came from the continent, and the seller claimed this was a portrait of the young Henry VIII by Holbein.

But the style is surely too aquatint for Holbein?  Even at its first inventory, the portrait was recorded as ‘A young man in a red garment, red bonnet and white feather with his hand on his sworde and a dagger hanging by’.

Analysis shows the painting was done between 1530 and 1550; the boy is between 15 and 20 years old.

But who was he?

It is just possible he could be the young Henry VIII, and the person who hawked the pictures to Charles II in the first place was actually telling the truth. But this is Henry between 1530-1535 according to Joos van Cleve. You decide; I think he’s looking a little thick about the jawline.

Facially, it is the second candidate, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who looks most like the sitter in this most charismatic of paintings. You can take a look at him here. Howard was a poet; he brought the sonnet to England. An all-too familiar story dogs this character: from one of the most powerful families in England, he fell foul of Henry and was the last person ever to be sentenced to death, on a charge of treason, by the old curmudgeon.

Henry VIII’s  illegitimate son by Elizabeth Blount was a shoddily kept secret by all accounts. Some academics believe it is possible this man in red was Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Dying at 17, he left behind him possessions which were inventoried. And among the list of effects?  A gown, doublet and hose in crimson satin, and also a doublet and hose in red taffeta.

You can take a look at him here.

Me? I’m not sure I care. This young man’s persona dominates the place where he hangs and puts others into the shade. He is a glorious spirit of youth, of that time of hope and ambition before reality sets in.

Most have a bucket list: I have a Tardis list. And should time travel ever become possible, I shall make myself young again, and put on a red dress, and wear splendid jewels; and permit myself one night to go and dine with the Man In Red.

There’s a great Google Art Talk on The Man In Red here

Or read the facts and vote on his identity here

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35 thoughts on “The Man In Red

  1. Another great whodunit / whoisit post. You suggest it’s an ‘Enery (you wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam?); not the King (though the eyes are also a bit piggy) and hard to gauge Fitzroy (but he does have a more pointed chin than the King). My money’s on the Earl: same flamboyance / chin / age. So much aggressive red and hint of power through the extended shoulder pads–here’s an assured and thrusting young man who will make the young king feel threatened.

      1. This is a well-mulled mystery, Chris, and still no-one seems very sure. I’m for number 2, Howard himself. A renaissance man if ever I saw one. A magnetic image.

      2. Actually, it’s interesting to compare the several images of Henry’s only legitimate son, Edward VI: similar pose in some of them, the pointed chin. Less piggy eyes though…

  2. The detail in this painting is truly spectacular. I did find myself wondering how difficult it might be to sit down in that outfit though!! Fashion, it seems, rarely takes comfort into account!

    1. I wonder how much one sat down at court, Joss? I have never really asked the question, but the ladies’ dresses seem made for standing and dancing, not sitting; and the same with this glorious garb.

    1. A perceptive question. It must have been an incredibly foolish move to appear so dominant and glorious with Henry around. How did he ever expect to hold onto his head? Unless this was Henry’s son. Or Henry himself.

  3. Interestingly enough, after looking at the picture and without going further I decided it must be a flattering young portrait of Horrible Hal, before evil and dissolution set in. So did MBH. Could be the pose and clothing, of course.

    1. As do I. Had we been at court, Milton and I would probably have ended up in an unbecoming wrestling match on the throne room floor, duelling for the man in red’s affections.

    1. There were plenty to choose from, Nancy: but I don’t think this is an ‘Enery. I think this is someone who could have wooed one with sonnets during a quiet meal together…

  4. I think not Henry the to-be king, nor Henry of Surry, but the Fitzroi, the offshoot, full of vim and optimism….. well probably.

    The outfit is fancily sewn from many fabrics, reeking of money – yet lacks the jewels of a king’s attire? So a favourite, doing ok and fancying he is doing better than that?

    another Kate story lies in wait, I wonder if Kate will follow him, leaving us her trail of birdcrumbs to follow, or is this Kate the flirt, dropping a name,leaving us wondering…

    1. Alas, the world wonders, Sidey; one listen to all the experts on the Google Art hangout link shows we could wonder for years and never reach a conclusion.
      Only time travel will yield the answer, I fear.

    1. 😀 Perhaps if you turn it over, his grandmother has carefully written his name in the top right hand corner. Complete with date and his age. Must alert Historic Royal Palaces to the possibility.

  5. Love your posts. Perhaps it’s the camera angle, but this certainly is a LARGE man in red. Intimidating to meet in person, I should think.

  6. Well, you’ve certainly provided plenty of background material and it would be interesting to know for sure, but this wonderfully imposing figure is just “presence” personified. I don’t really need to know to fully appreciate. If he is Henry, I would have liked to know him then. Later…not so much! I like your Tardis wish!

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