In Holbein's painting, the Earl of Surrey is portrayed as intense and noble, with a thin aesthetic pale face, the face of a poet. He is warmly dressed, wrapped in a furry-looking cloak which he is grasping around him, and matching hat. The cloak is heavy and thick, contrasting interestingly with the finery just visible beneath it. White, delicate, lacily embroidered collar and cuff tell us that Howard was a lover of fine clothing and accessories and that he had the means to indulge this inclination. The portrait itself, devoid of any background clues, tells us nothing about his poetry, but Howard's overall look, as portrayed by Holbein, somehow suggests it.
Holbein: symmetry and precision
The portrait of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is a handsome example of Holbein's capacity to portray a person's likeness in perfect symmetry and harmony of composition. As his many portraits have shown, symmetry is an important element in his working technique. Precision is another characteristic found in Holbein's work; it is evident here even in the brushstrokes of Howard's clothing. Holbein painted his subjects as distinct individuals and his portraits convey more than just an accurate likeness of the subject, often the setting tells us more. However, this is a later-phase Holbein painting, spare and unadorned, with emphasis on the central figure and little or nothing expressed in way of background or embellishment.
Holbein produced this painting in 1541-1543, following his infallible portrait-painting technique. Starting with a sketch or drawing, his precise outlines served as preparatory design. He was said to have used geometrical instruments to convey the drawn portrait onto the oak panel. Every detail is painstakingly reproduced: the glimpse of elaborate collar and cuff, the slightly anxious eyes, a hint of hair escaping from the furry-looking hat, the hand clutching the cloak; there is no doubt that when Henry Howard posed for Holbein, this was exactly how he looked.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Part of the powerful Howard family (his father was Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk), Henry Howard was a nobleman at the court of Henry VIII. He was a poet, known to us as the 'Father of the Sonnet'. Along with Thomas Wyatt, he was the first to translate Petrarch's sonnets. He composed the rhyming metre and the quatrains that characterise the English sonnet, which was subsequently adopted by other poets, notably William Shakespeare. In contrast to this romantic vein, he had a vile temper and got into quarrels, the last of them with the king himself. Henry VIII was known for solving problems with the executioner's axe and Henry Howard was no exception. He was beheaded in 1547.