Pastime with good company
I love and shall, until I die.
Grudge who list, but none deny!
So God be pleased, thus live will I.
– King Henry VIII of England
If anyone ever took pleasure in actively curating a pretty collection of companions and living as they alone pleased, it was England’s second Tudor king, Henry VIII. His high-stakes romantic pitfalls in the quest for a legitimate male heir have become crystallised within humanity’s collective consciousness. This sixteenth-century monarch—obese, ulcerated and legendarily paranoid at the end of his life— lives on today, the passage of time only adding to his grandiose and terrifying mystique.
Henry VIII and his Six Wives, a series of images captured by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto in 1999, and exhibited at Saatchi Gallery in 2001, perfectly solidify Henry’s state in the modern age. Although seventeen years has passed since the commissioning of these stirring black and white portraits, they are not, and never will be, any less relevant than the haunted feeling one still tingles with upon hearing macabre tales of a rapid succession of royal spouses. These photographs are ageless, of the past yet remarkably present. Furthermore, they betray Sugimoto’s enchanting ability to portray stylistic fidelity to bygone eras while demanding that extant and future viewers see with a critical eye.
Lauded as a highly-skilled technician, Sugimoto is also an astute art historian. Were it not for the large-format camera and lengthy exposure times that went in to crafting these photographs, they could easily be mistaken for court portraits turned out by Hans Holbein the Younger. The photographer worked carefully to preserve the same linear starkness of Tudor portraiture, which was rather flat and underdeveloped in comparison to well-modeled, more incisive works by contemporary French and Italian painters. What counted in England, at the time considered by continent-dwellers to be a backwards little island isolated by Henry’s schism with Rome, was a decently realistic likeness and the elaborate depiction of the bejewelled trappings of highborn dress.
Yet Sugimoto has not merely replicated Tudor compositions— pieces very much of their time and place. Through his choice of model, he has transformed them into images which are entirely his own and entirely at home in any epoch. The women frozen in three-quarter poses are not feeling the strain of a long held posture, nor are they sentient of the noteworthy queens whom they represent, for they are wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s in London, sculpted according to Holbein’s original paintings.
Hence Sugimoto’s subjects will never wrinkle or fade to dust, much like the myths and curiosity surrounding these six Tudor brides and the king they loved. Katharine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Kateryn Parr. A dramatically annulled marriage, a “benevolent” beheading, death by childbed fever, another annulment followed by another execution, and finally, a survivor. We know these women and their fates, and Sugimoto’s work aims to ensure we always will.
The waxwork models also encourage intellectual growth in all forthcoming generations of viewers, smudging the lines between what is concrete and dreamed-up, between what lived, is alive, and what never was, between yesteryear, today and tomorrow. Sugimoto plays an existential game of representations within representations, questioning what the eye is willing to believe. And much like the lore surrounding Henry VIII and his trailing procession of wives, such playful uncertainty will never lose its zest.