Book of the week: Material Girls

Kathleen Stock picks her way through the complex and contentious issue of trans-activism

Material Girls

In 1526, aged 29, the German-born painter Hans Holbein found himself badly in need of money, said Michael Prodger in The Sunday Times. So he left his wife and two children in Basel – his home for the previous 11 years – and decamped to London, where he manoeuvred himself into the court of Henry VIII.

As Franny Moyle’s vivid biography shows, moving to England was a somewhat arbitrary decision: such was Holbein’s reputation that he “could have gone anywhere”. But it was one that profoundly affected how the Tudor age came to be viewed. With his many portraits of the king – “legs wide, chest and codpiece out” – Holbein moulded the image of Henry VIII as the epitome of “alpha-male monarchical power”. And by painting four of the king’s six wives, his advisers Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, plus a host of lesser figures, he left a vivid pictorial record that now defines our understanding of Henrician England.

Any Holbein biographer faces the problem that so little of him remains, said Mark Bostridge in The Spectator. His will (discovered in the archives of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1861) is the “only surviving personal document”. The absence of evidence forces Moyle to speculate, and this she does admirably, capturing Holbein’s opportunism and “enormous versatility”: the way his paintings straddled many styles and traditions; his willingness to work both for Catholic and Protestant patrons.

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“Crossword puzzlers, this is a book for you,” said Laura Freeman in The Times. Like a detective, Moyle decodes the clues, symbols and visual puns that Holbein incorporated into his work, such as the “sinister, stretched skull in The Ambassadors”. The result is rather “like Wolf Hall, with pics” – a “great, thrusting codpiece of a book” that is huge fun to read.

Head of Zeus 575pp £35; The Week Bookshop £27.99 (incl. p&p)

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