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Catherine of Aragon, unknown artist, c.1520. By permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners.

LONDON.- Henry and Catherine Reunited places portraits of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon together for the first time in nearly 500 years. The pictures will be on show from today (Friday 25 January) at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The rare early portrait of Catherine of Aragon has been placed on loan from Lambeth Palace and has undergone an extensive programme of research and conservation treatment prior to its display. 

During a research visit to Lambeth Palace staff from the Gallery’s conservation and curatorial department noticed a portrait hanging in a private sitting room. The portrait depicted a woman in costume which dated from the 1520s to 1530s. The sitter had previously been identified as Henry VIII’s last wife Catherine Parr. However, the facial features and costume shared more similarities with known works depicting Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. The other striking element of the piece was its rare original engaged frame (a frame that was constructed around the panel support for the portrait before it was painted). 

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners generously allowed the Gallery to borrow the portrait for further research, including technical analysis. Examination of the painting in raking light indicated that it originally had a patterned background. Further analysis showed that it would be possible to remove the black over paint from the background to reveal the original green finish which imitates damask silk; the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of King Henry VIII c. 1520 shares a similar brocade background. An X-ray indicated a veil attached to Catherine’s headdress and it became evident that a large amount of over painting had altered the characterization of the sitter’s face. This research confirmed the re-identification of the portrait as Catherine of Aragon, and also underpinned the subsequent conservation treatment of the painting. 

Examination of the frame revealed that elements of the original decorative finish survived beneath layers of later paint and gilding. The discovery of the original Tudor finish is an extremely rare find. It combines oil gilding with coloured bands of blue and red which were painted with the pigments azurite and vermillion. A large proportion of the original finish was recovered enabling the National Portrait Gallery’s conservation team to reconstruct the areas of loss and damage. The restored colour scheme adds to the aesthetic reading of the painting. 

The portrait was compared with the National Portrait Gallery’s painting of Henry VIII from the same period which is a similar composition. Whilst not suggesting the works originally formed a pair, the costume dates them to the same period and the works are of the same scale. It is likely that both are examples of the type of portraits of the king and queen that would have been produced in multiple versions, some of which would have been paired in this way. 

This research was undertaken as part of Making Art in Tudor Britain, a project which has used scientific techniques to analyse the portraits in the display to increase the understanding of the working practices of Tudor artists. 

Dr Charlotte Bolland, Project Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London says: ‘It is wonderful to have the opportunity to display this important early portrait of Catherine of Aragon at the Gallery. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were married for nearly twenty four years and during that time their portraits would have been displayed together in this fashion, as king and queen of England.’ 

This painting was identified as a part of the major five year research project Making Art in Tudor Britain. This project is supported by: AHRC, British Academy, John S Cohen Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Idlewild Trust, Leche Trust, The Leverhulme Trust, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The Mercers’ Company, PF Charitable Trust, Marit and Hans Rausing Charitable Foundation and an anonymous donor. 

Henry and Catherine Reunited is on display in Room 1 from 25 January 2013, admission free

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King Henry VIII, unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1520, © National Portrait Gallery, London.