Appendix A: Busts said to be from the Holbein Gate

Survey of London: Volume 14, St Margaret, Westminster, Part III: Whitehall II. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1931.

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'Appendix A: Busts said to be from the Holbein Gate', in Survey of London: Volume 14, St Margaret, Westminster, Part III: Whitehall II, (London, 1931) pp. 165-168. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]

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In Plate 146 are reproduced photographs (full-face and profile) of three terra-cotta busts, which are commonly stated to have been originally on the front of the Holbein Gate, and to have been preserved when that Gate was destroyed in 1759. As, however, these busts certainly never formed part of the exterior decoration of the Gate, and possibly had no connection at all with that building, it has been thought well to deal with them, not in the main part of the volume, but in an appendix.

The busts in question measure about 2 feet across at the base (one of them, however, being somewhat in excess of this), and project about 14 inches. They are hollow, and are cut away at the back vertically to permit of their standing against a flat surface. The heads stand out quite free. They are formed of a fine-grained terra-cotta, which has a coating on the outer surface to receive colours and gilding in imitation of nature, and have a dull finish. They show signs of having been damaged, but have been carefully restored and stiffened with plaster.

The busts are at the present time in the possession of the Hon. Mrs. Wilson-Filmer at Leeds Castle, Kent, but until recently were preserved at Hatfield Priory, Hatfield Peverell, Essex. The only account we possess of how they came to be at Hatfield Peverell is that given by J. T. Smith in his Antiquities of Westminster (pp. 22–23), as follows: "Intelligence was obtained that after the gate was taken down, three of the busts were in the possession of a man who kept an old iron shop in Belton Street, St. Giles's; and that the busts were supposed to have been stolen (when the gate was taken down), and were afterwards sold to this man, who had them three or four years. Mr. Wright, the coachmaker, who then lived in Long Acre, seeing them in the shop, bought them, and employed Mr. Flaxman the sculptor, then a boy, to repair them. … Mr. Flaxman repaired them for Mr. Wright the purchaser, about thirty-four years ago; which, as this account was given in or about the year 1803, would be about 1769. On mentioning these particulars to another gentleman [Henry Hoare, Esq.], he recollected that the Mr. Wright above mentioned, had lived in an house called Hatfield Priory, at Hatfield Peverell, near Witham in Essex, and suggested the probability of these busts being in the possession of his descendant, who still lived there; and on writing to a friend in that neighbourhood [the Rev. Foote Gower], it was learned that they were actually there … in the possession of Peter Luard Wright, Esq."

In the account of the Holbein Gate given by Pennant in his Account of London (1790) is a reference to the preservation of the busts. "On each front were four busts in baked clay, in proper colours, which resisted to the last every attack of the weather; possibly the artificial stone revived in this century. These, I have been lately informed, are preserved in a private hand."

It would appear therefore that Pennant was of opinion that the busts preserved had formed part of the external decorative features of the Gate, and J. T. Smith refers to Pennant's account in such terms as to leave no doubt that he, too, regarded the three busts then at Hatfield Peverell as three of the eight roundels shown in views of the Gate. In this, both writers were certainly mistaken.

In the first place, the busts show no signs of having been curved at the bottom as would have been necessary had they been fitted into the round borders, and the present form and character of the busts makes it in other respects quite inconceivable that they should ever have formed part of the roundels. Secondly, it is evident that they bear no resemblance whatever to the figures shown within the roundels on such representations of the Gate as we possess. The latter, on the other hand, strikingly correspond in certain features to the busts of Roman emperors on the gateways at Hampton Court. These are full-face, in high relief, showing the imperial cuirass, and with streamers occupying part of the field, while the raised border contains martial emblems, with a lion's head both at the top and at the bottom of the circle. In all these details, so far as can be seen, they agree with the figures within the roundels shown in illustrations of the Holbein Gate. It is possible therefore that the latter figures, like those at Hampton Court, represented Roman emperors. In any case, they did not include the three busts which have been preserved. While Smith's account of the history of the latter after 1769 is quite satisfactory, the same cannot be said for the previous ten years. And yet it seems hardly likely that the busts could have come from anywhere in London but Whitehall, and the demolition of the Holbein Gate only a few years before their first appearance undoubtedly suggests that they came thence. Perhaps they formed the internal decorations of the main room above the Gate, or possibly they had previously been in the Tiltyard Gallery, and had been removed and stored in the Gate when the Gallery passed into private hands in 1716 (see p. 59).

Figure 33:

One of the roundels at Hampton Court Palace.

According to J. T. Smith, Mr. Wright, the purchaser of the busts, repeatedly said that they represented Henry VII, Henry VIII when sixteen, and Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith has vigorously supported these identifications. "That of Henry VIII speaks for itself, and that of Henry VII is by comparison with other portraits of him, particularly that in Westminster, unmistakable, though the terra-cotta clearly represents him at an earlier age. The same remark applies to the Bishop, of whom the Holbein portrait at Windsor and that at Christ Church, Oxford, give us an evidently accurate presentment." (fn. n1) The busts are evidently by the same artist, and were probably made at the same time. If therefore the identifications are correct, the busts were probably executed in the year 1507, when Henry VIII (then Prince of Wales) was sixteen, Henry VII was still alive, and Fisher was in his prime. The suggestion is rather attractive, but if it is correct the busts could not possibly have been made for the Holbein Gate or the Tiltyard Gallery, which were not built until 1531–2, (fn. n2) but must have been executed for some other purpose, and have been utilised subsequently in one of those buildings. This may perhaps be thought improbable; but if the busts are correctly identified, it is difficult to conceive of them being made in 1531–2. Why in that case was Henry VIII, who was 40 years of age, depicted as a youth of sixteen; and why was Fisher, who was by that time quite out of favour owing to his attitude towards the King's divorce, included at all?

In any case, a bust of Fisher, whether executed for the purpose or not, in any scheme of decoration of the Royal Palace in 1531–2 seems rather unlikely, and this fact tends to suggest that the usually-accepted identifications are not beyond dispute, a view which has been strongly urged by Mr. Charles R. Beard. (fn. n3) According to the latter only one of the identifications, that of Henry VII, is correct. The other two busts are in his opinion unidentifiable.

On the whole the question of identification must be regarded as still open.

As regards when the busts were executed, the choice lies chiefly (though certainly not exclusively) between two dates: (a) 1507, if the usuallyaccepted identifications are correct; (b) 1531–2, if not.

Even more doubt attends the question of the artist by whom the busts were executed. The names of Pietro Torrigiano, Giovanni da Maiano and Benedetto da Rovezzano have been suggested, but all that can be definitely stated on the point is that the busts are the work of some artist of the Florentine School.

In the Council's Collection are:—

(fn. n4) Three terra-cotta busts said to have been taken from the Holbein Gate (six photographs).
(fn. n4) Plaster cast of roundel at Hampton Court Palace (photograph of cast preserved at the Geffrye Museum).


  • n1. Article by Sir Cecil Harcourt-Smith, on Three Busts by Torrigiano (?) in Old Furniture, December, 1928.
  • n2. See p. 10.
  • n3. Torrigiano or da Maiano ? in The Connoisseur for August, 1929.
  • n4. Reproduced here.