- Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty: Tapestries at the Tudor Court
Were tapestries, rather than paintings or prints, the favored artistic medium at the Tudor court? The argument that they were is one of the central premises of Thomas Campbell's major new book on Henry VIII's extensive tapestry collection. There is no precedent for this exhaustive examination of tapestry in the Tudor [End Page 981] royal collection: the sheer depth and range of Campbell's research, and the number of tapestries elucidated, contribute to the monumentality of the endeavor. The book is arranged chronologically, narrating the history of tapestries in the English royal collections from the reign of Edward II (1307–27) to that of Henry VIII (1509–47) and beyond, with a fascinating account of the ways in which the tapestries were used by later British monarchs. There are also excellent comparisons to Continental collections, as well as chapters devoted to the collecting habits of Cardinal Wolsey, who Campbell rightly argues was Henry's guide in the gradual growth of appreciation of tapestry collecting.
Running beneath the overarching narrative of the chronology of acquisitions is the articulation of Campbell's principal thesis: that the choices of tapestries for purchase were largely driven by their subject matter's thematic relevance to the monarch at particular stages of his reign. Campbell coins the phrase iconographic suggestion to refer to the ways in which tapestries were displayed in order that contemporary viewers should draw parallels between the king and the hero portrayed. He makes special reference to the large numbers of sets devoted to King David, as well as sets depicting Aeneas, Jacob, Tobias, and others. This practice of saying something through a process of association had a long and established history, and Campbell considers this to be a key factor in the visual culture of Henrician England.
Campbell's discrete concentration on tapestry leads him to make a number of debatable conclusions about the place of tapestry in the Henrician order of priorities. For example, as a challenge to the prevailing scholarship on Henrician art in the 1530s, the period of the divorce, royal supremacy, and Reformation, Campbell argues that the true significance of the paucity of royal works with pertinent subject matter that could have propagated the message of Henry's expanded powers and denounced the pope should not be sought with respect to paintings or prints, but should be explored in terms of the king's favored medium, tapestry. And so we should be looking for royal anti-papal propaganda in tapestries, but, since tapestries were woven in the Low Countries, which were under Habsburg rule, and since Charles V opposed the divorce of his aunt, Katherine of Aragon, it would have been impossible to have overtly Reformist tapestries woven to demonstrate royal ideology. This, Campbell argues, explains why there was no coordinated campaign of visual imagery to match the printed propaganda campaign. This argument goes substantially beyond special pleading for tapestries to be taken seriously in the list of types of visual productions Henry VIII had at his disposal: for Campbell argues, contentiously, that the figurative media of painting and print were always secondary to tapestry in the king's order of priorities, as measured by cost, numbers, and size. Campbell indeed demonstrates that Henry VIII collected tapestries in enormous numbers, and that his collection rivaled that of any other collector of the period. But given that we know of no tapestry set commissioned by Henry VIII in any period of his reign that was specifically created to narrate an episode in the life of the king or simply portray him, it seems more reasonable to suppose that this medium operated for Henry in precisely the ways [End Page 982] that Campbell himself sets up: as a tonal medium that through iconographic suggestion communicated the same sorts of messages about magnificence and display that late medieval tapestries had also done. No case is made for a major...