Readersforum's Blog

October 19, 2012

Booker Prize double winner Hilary Mantel: Cromwell is a work in progress

Double Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel explains how Henry VIII’s chief minister took shape as she wrote him into life, and how what began with ‘Wolf Hall’ became not one novel but three.

By Hilary Mantel

About the year 1533 Hans Holbein painted a portrait of Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer in the service of King Henry VIII. Hans (as he was casually called) was not yet established as Henry’s court painter, but drew his sitters from minor courtiers and the Hanseatic merchant community. He was not seen as a remote genius, more as a jobbing decorator who you would call in to design a tassel, a gold cup, a salt cellar or the scenery for a pageant. Thomas Cromwell had not yet acquired his status as Henry’s chief minister; as the paper on his desk informs us, he was Master of the Jewel House. A gregarious, cosmopolitan man who had spent time in Italy and the Low Countries, he was probably better placed to know Holbein’s worth than many of his courtier contemporaries. The politician and the painter, both due to rise rapidly at Henry’s court, were bound together by a network of shared friends and shared interests.

But the portrait is not a friendly one. Holbein would soon paint The Ambassadors, rich and splendid and symbol-laden, one of the icons of Western art. There are no metaphors in his Cromwell picture. There is no echo of his portrait of Thomas More: none of that swift intelligence, intensity, engagement with the viewer. What you see is what you get. Cromwell looks like a man hard to reach and hard to impress. He does not invite you to conversation. His posture is attentive, though, as if he might be listening to someone or something beyond the frame.

Of course, a Tudor statesman who commissioned his portrait didn’t want to look bonny. He wanted to look powerful; he was the hand, the arm, of the state. Even so, when (in my novel Wolf Hall) the portrait is unveiled, Cromwell himself is taken aback. “I look like a murderer,” he exclaims. His son Gregory says, “Didn’t you know?”

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