Book: ,

Where the idea for this book came from…

Hans Holbein: Sketch for the first pictures of Thomas More’s family, 1527-8

The first glimmering of the idea for this book came from an exhibition of Holbein drawings at the National Portrait Gallery in the early 1990s – a long time ago.

I was fascinated both by the artist’s sheer skill and by the faces of the new Tudor aristocracy he was drawing, enriched by the very recent dissolution of the monasteries and getting fat on the spoils they’d looted. I was living in Boris Yeltsin’s New Russia at the time, and the faces Holbein was drawing – new Tudor aristocrats, men on the make – struck me as having a lot in common with the tough, aggressive faces of the successful new capitalists I saw all around me in Moscow every day.

So I bought the exhibition catalogue and read all the promotional material I could get my hands on, from cover to cover, in the plane back to Moscow. And somewhere in it I found a passing reference to an “ingenious” theory about two versions of Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More’s family. (The second version of the picture has an extra character in it). The theory had been dreamed up by a retired jeweller called Jack Leslau to explain who this extra character was and why he suddenly appeared in the second version of the group portrait. Leslau believed that the man was John Clement, the More children’s tutor, who had married Thomas More’s adopted daughter, Margaret Giggs. The astonishing part of his theory was what followed. Taking clues from objects inside the picture, Leslau made the case that John Clement was not who he seemed – that he had a second, hidden identity, and had been watched over throughout his life by More, the loyal servant of and adviser to the Tudors, who knew his secret.

I was curious enough to spend some time looking into whether this could be possible. Although I’ve never been sure whether I’d say I completely believe the story myself, I soon realised that all the bits of the jigsaw Jack Leslau had so cleverly put together did fit.

Hans Holbein: Second portrait of Sir Thomas More’s Family, signed “Rowlandas Lockey” but usually attributed to Holbein, painted in the mid-1530s

So I decided to write a story taking this version of events as a given — with a “John Clement” character whose past had been marked by war, trauma, and a change of identity but who had found a new self in the flourishing of intellectual life of the Renaissance. The novel was to show what happened to Thomas More’s family, being pulled in different directions as Catholic-Protestant religious strife took hold of Europe.

The story begins with the painting of the first portrait, when More was almost at the peak of his powers — in which the mysterious John Clement doesn’t figure — and ends with the second portrait five years later, after the deeply Catholic More had lost his job and was being hunted down by his Protestant rivals at court. My story develops a love triangle and my thoughts about how war and religious strife affect individuals. But it is also an attempt to solve the conundrum of what changed inside the family in those years, and why Holbein, who by 1532 was much closer to the family he’d befriended in 1527, now felt it was important to show them in a new light.

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