A rare Tudor survival

March 15 2012

Image of A rare Tudor survival

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

Last night at the gallery we hosted the launch of Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb's new book, the enjoyable and thoroughly useful Visitor's Companion to Tudor England. In her speech, Suzannah mentioned some of the only remains of Henry VIII's magnificent Nonsuch Palace, a series of painted canvas panels at Loseley Park in Surrey generally accepted to have been commissioned for Nonsuch. This reminded me that some years ago we handled two of the panels (above), showing Juno and Neptune. And since they haven't been widely published, I thought I would post them here, for any Tudor art lovers among you.

The two panels had left the Loseley Collection when they were given to John Paul Getty in the 1980s. We bought them after Getty's death, when they were sold by his estate through a London auction house. The auctioneers hadn't really grasped the importance of what they had, and we were lucky enough to acquire them. Like the rest of the set at Loseley, the panels were covered in literally centuries of over-paint and dirt. We were able to remove this, so in these two panels at least, we can see them more or less as Henry VIII would have seen them all those years ago. What surprised us most about what emerged was the overall quality. The detail and colouring is quite sophisticated, especially for English 16th Century decorative painting. 

Here is my research note on the panels. It looks at the probable artist, Antonio Toto del Nunziato (1499-1554), one of many Italian itinerant painters working at the Tudor court.


The Nonsuch Panels’

Oil on Canvas; 50 by 17 ¾ inches, 127 x 45 cm


Commissioned for Henry VIII; In the possession of Sir Thomas Cawarden (c.1514–1559); His executor Sir William More (1520–1600); By descent at Loseley Park Surrey to Mr & Mrs James More-Molyneux; Until gifted to John Paul Getty c.1980, at Sutton Place, Surrey.


Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, Edward Croft-Murray, London 1962, Vol. I p.18, Vol II p.313. Marcus Binney, ‘Loseley Park’, Country Life, October 9th 1969.

These paintings are known by tradition as the ‘Nonsuch Panels’, due to their apparent origin at Nonsuch Palace, the greatest of Henry VIII’s Tudor palaces. They can be attributed with some certainty to Henry VIII’s Sergent Painter, Antonio del Nunziato, or, as he was known in England, Anthony Toto, and are part of a series of his only attributable works. They were painted c.1543-4, probably for an important royal celebration or Henry’s final wedding to Katherine Parr, and represent a rare and highly important survival of decorative art from the Tudor court. 

The present panels are two of a larger surviving set of at least a dozen others at Loseley Park in Sussex, home of the More-Molyneux family for over four hundred years. The panels came to Loseley through Henry VIII’s Keeper of the Tents and Master of the Revels [1], Sir Thomas Cawarden, and there remained until the 1980s, when the present paintings were given to John Paul Getty. All scenes in the series depict classical figures, and are of varying condition. The present pair have been the subject of recent renovation, during which numerous layers of later overpaint have been removed.

The panels were first attributed to Anthony Toto by Edward Croft-Murray in his 1962 survey Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, on the basis of a listed receipt in Toto’s hand and signed by him “for painting of hatchements, arms and badges of the King’s to be set upon his Highness’s tents and pavilions” in the Loseley archives dated May 31st 1544 [Loseley MS 1893]. This view was reaffirmed by Marcus Binney in a 1969 article for Country Life. The present works would have been typical of the temporary ‘hatchements’ painted for the interior of a royal ‘tent’, or pavilion. 

Further research by the present author has unearthed an additional, more comprehensive, description of the work carried out by Toto for Carwarden. The document, in Toto’s own hand, not only helps confirm the attribution of the present pictures, but sheds important light onto the activities of an artist in the Tudor court. It is undated, but was drawn up between 1544-47. The list of work carried out begins, “Things made and paynted for the kings Majestie by Antony Totto Serjeant Paynter [for] Sir Thomas Cardew Knyght” and goes onto detail a mass of heraldic hatchements “of the Kings Armes wt the beasts around the garter, and the Kings words [ie, motto]”, and large number of smaller “pensills paynted upon Burkeram wt the Kings badge” [Loseley MSS 1891/2]. There are also a number of painted earthenware pots listed, apparently for use in stables, suggesting that the riot of colour and decoration seen in the present paintings was employed in even the most mundane corners of the court.

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It has not been possible to determine with absolute certainty whether the present paintings are included in Toto’s list. Although the receipt is specific about size and numbers of each work, the content of all the pictures is not listed in enough detail, and this series of paintings has been cut down from their original sizes. However, some of the smaller heraldic devices Toto mentions can still be found at Loseley today. And, since they are painted on the same canvas support, and in what is clearly a similar hand as the present pair of classical scenes, the attribution to Toto can be made with confidence. Thus the only known surviving works of this artist (and the only survival of a painted decoration done by an Italian in this period) can now be better understood. These elaborate works, meant only as temporary decorations for the King’s tents, demonstrate the extent to which every surface on which the royal eye might alight was decorated with intense colour, and the latest fashionable designs. 

Anthony Toto, or Totto as he himself seems to have preferred, trained under Ridolfo Ghirlandaio in Florence. He came to England in 1519 with the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who is regarded as the first bringer of the Renaissance into English art. Vasari records Toto as not only an artist, but also as an architect, who designed the King’s ‘principale palazzo’, thought to be Nonsuch Palace, although it is not known if this refers to design of the palace as a whole, or the decorated interior. Toto was in royal employ from 1530, from when he received the salary of £25 per year, a hefty sum later bolstered by grants of land and a licence to export 600 barrels of beer a year.

Toto was therefore clearly highly valued at court, and was appointed Serjeant Painter in January 1544. He worked on some of the most important royal decorative schemes, from Jane Seymour’s funeral to the designing Henry VIII’s hearse, and is recorded in the New Year’s gifts as presenting Edward VI with a portrait of a Duke. Toto may be the “Mr Anthony” referred to in Holbein’s will, as being left £10. If ‘Mr Anthony’ is Toto, then it is conceivable that he was somehow in Holbein’s employ. This would not only settle the much-discussed issue of whether Holbein had a studio, but would suggest a highly plausible candidate for one of Holbein’s able assistants. But whether he worked for Holbein or not, Toto was the most important Italian artist at work in Henry’s court.

The presence of Katherine Parr’s cypher on similar paintings at Loseley suggests that Toto was under the direct patronage of this famously art-loving queen at the time the present pictures were painted. Although the receipts from Toto to Cawarden are dated 1544 onwards, it is not unlikely that the panels were painted earlier, possibly even for the celebrations of Henry and Katherine’s wedding in July 1543, and that Toto was only paid the following year. What is certain, however, is that the present paintings were part of the renewed burst in artistic activity under Katherine. We already know that she was instrumental in almost all the royal portrait commissions of the period, but now a reassessment of the present pictures illustrates that she was also involved in the more day to day artistic decorations at court.

The nature of the designs in the present panels gives an intriguing glimpse into how Renaissance ideals made their way into Britain in the early sixteenth century. One possible source of the designs for the present paintings and the other “Nonsuch Panels’ must be the set of Flemish tapestries commissioned by Henry between 1540-2. The tapestries, some of which can still be seen on display at Hampton Court, were based on earlier designs by the studio of Raphael for the Pope, and consist of a number of classical and biblical scenes such as the Story of Abraham and the Triumph of Hercules (both have obvious connotations for how Henry saw himself). Deciding with any certainty which artists made the initial tapestry design is, through lack of evidence, speculative. But recent research has led to an attribution to Francesco Penni and Giovanni da Udine, working between 1517-20. This attribution may be of importance to the understanding of the present paintings, and the spread of similar designs in English painting. 

Giovanni da Udine, or Nanni as he is sometimes known, was a pioneer of grotesque art in the early sixteenth century. An assistant of Raphael in Rome at the time of the discovery of antique ruins in the baths of Titus and other sites, Udine was selected to copy and make designs from the large numbers of grotesques discovered. The clear similarity between the style and structure of the grotesques in Udine’s tapestries and Toto’s designs serves as a vivid illustration of the final step in the transport of similar Renaissance ideals into English art, which, notwithstanding the unique brilliance of Holbein, slipped imperceptibly from Roman ruin, to Raphael’s studio, to Flemish tapestry, and finally, Toto’s brush.

It may be that the borders of both the ‘Triumph’ and the ‘Abraham’ tapestries are particularly relevant to the present pictures. The central scene from the Triumph of Hercules, one of seven “Triumphs of the Gods”, shows Hercules standing in a classical tabernacle, similar to the two gods Neptune and Juno in the present works. The border for each tapestry scene is surrounded by a series of grotesques and architectural features containing standing figures, often supported on caryatids, such as can be found in the Nonsuch panels. It is possible, therefore, that the Nonsuch panels were designed to stand vertically on top of others, and to surround another central painted scene. 

[1] The clerk’s official dog-Latin description sounds better; “Officium magistri jocorum revelorum et mascorum omnium et singulorum nostrorum.”

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