The skills of German and Netherlandish metalworkers were greatly prized in London; Henry VIII employed them as armourers and clockmakers as well as goldsmiths. The latter included Holbein’s collaborators Hans of Antwerp and Cornelis Hayes. Jewellery and ornamental weapons adorned with precious stones were much in demand, as well as large and elaborate pieces which could be shown off at court banquets.
Court taste now moved sharply towards Renaissance style designs incorporating classical architectural motifs as well as arabesques, acanthus leaves, garlands and fantastic figures. This favoured Holbein’s extensive and highly inventive decorative repertoire, derived partly from Italian print sources and imbued with an extraordinary sense of movement. Many of his designs must have required particularly skilled goldsmiths.
Some of the drawings exhibited here show Holbein at work: sketching alternative motifs and suggesting different developments and combinations of the fantastic figures he incorporated into his designs. Others are evidently finished drawings, made for the approval of the patron preparatory to the goldsmith’s work. None of the precious metal objects Holbein designed survives today. However, one of only three surviving pieces from Henry VIII’s treasury is exhibited here, a magnificent French clocksalt which has much in common with Holbein’s designs.