Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIII’s Queens ★★★★ National Portrait Gallery | Jun 20 - Sep 8, 2024


Who really were these famous women and what do we actually know about them? This exhibition starts with the perceptions and iconography that have grown up around the consorts of one of England's most notorious kings, and then looks back at the six individuals who became the stuff of myth. The exhibition opens with an imposing picture of Henry VIII, and then works backwards, first considering the afterlife of the six women whom he married. Our initial encounter with them is the sumptuous black and white images created by Hiroshi Sugimoto from the wax work depictions made for Madame Tussaud's. Their afterlife is then presented as they have been shown in operas, plays, books and even knick-knacks. We then delve into the influences moulding both the king's and his wives' self-perceptions. The final six galleries reveal how these women sought to present themselves and how they were seen by others. The focus is now on the individual queens and significant artifacts associated with them. They are presented in the chronological order of their reigns: dutiful and determined Katherine of Aragon, coy and cultivated Anne Boleyn, sweet and submissive Jane Seymour, plain and pragmatic Anne of Cleves, effervescent and almost erased Katherine Howard and resourceful and resilient Katherine Parr. The religious and political characters that surround the queens also come to the fore and the women's own behaviours in both fields is considered. This is a show that is being complemented with a series of lectures, tours and workshops, and in July, there will be a very special late event when the cast of the hit musical Six perform as part of a Tudor extravaganza. Whether you're a history buff, or simply remember the old mnemonic "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived" you won't want to miss this exhibition that brilliantly deconstructs the narratives of these fascinating women.

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: Anne of Cleves (1539) by Hans Holbein the Younger © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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