Reviews / Exhibition of ‘cultural treasure’ opens today

Curator of Shetland Museum, Dr Ian Tait, and the director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, admiring Holbein's masterpiece during an exhibition preview on Thursday afternoon. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

AN ARTISTIC masterpiece from the Tudor period arrived in Shetland this week giving islanders the unique opportunity to gaze upon a national treasure from one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century, Hans Holbein the Younger.

A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, painted in the 1520s, is currently on loan to the Shetland Museum and Archives by the National Gallery in London as part of their Masterpiece Tour 2018, which brings Old Master paintings to various galleries throughout the UK.


Hans Holbein the Younger was a German artist (1497/8 – 1543) whose paintings signal the entrance of modern realism into British art.

He was renowned for painting meticulously realistic portraits of the court of Henry VIII and his ministers. In this painting of A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling he depicted a lady, probably Anne Lovell who was the wife of Sir Francis Lovell, a member of Henry VIII’s court.


Using oil and tempera on oak panel, Holbein painted this portrait during his first visit to England from 1526-1528 and included a squirrel and starling to subtly symbolise the association to the Lovell family name which had squirrels on their coat of arms.

Conveying the importance of a painting such as this the museum’s exhibitions officer John Hunter said: “It takes you to the 16th century, when portraiture can be seen as social media; information was communicated through the inventiveness and imagination of the artist.

“The portrait’s power comes from the quality of technique and its subtle moral message.”


But this exhibition is not simply about viewing the work of an Old Master. The Shetland Museum has created a dynamic, interactive exhibition that transports us from the Tudor world of Hans Holbein to the 21st century.

The sponsorship of the Masterpiece Tour by the London auction house Christie’s has enabled the museum to run a 10-week programme of lectures, talks, and workshops running from May to July for families, children and adults.

Ranging from artist led portraiture workshops for children as well as adults to a variety of talks about Holbein and the Tudor period to a photo booth where visitors can dress up in Tudor style and have their picture taken in an antique style frame.

All of these workshops bring a fun, active involvement to the exhibition and through Holbein’s painting inspire visitors to explore the world of portraiture from an era long before selfies and mass media gripped our cultural consciousness.

The exhibition opens today (Friday) and will be attended by three prestigious figures from the National Gallery – Mary Hersov (head of national programmes), Sue Thompson (exhibitions organizer) and Dr Gabriele Finaldi (the director of the National Gallery), who have all travelled from London to Shetland to accompany the arrival of Holbein’s painting.


Welcoming the exhibiting of Holbein’s work, Dr Finaldi said: “It is a huge pleasure for the National Gallery to share its collections and to find ways to share these paintings with museums all over the country.

“This painting by Hans Holbein is placed in a very different context here in Shetland from what you would normally see it in London inviting us to look at it in a different way than usual.”

The significance of this prestigious work of art to be exhibited here in Shetland is immense according to Dr Ian Tait, curator of Shetland Museum.

“This is a momentous exhibition for us,” he said. “Islanders have never before had the chance to appreciate such a cultural treasure in their midst and we’re honoured that the National Gallery chose us as their exhibition venue. I’m sure that Shetlanders will remember this prestigious loan for years to come.”

A Lady with a Squirrel and Starling will be on show from 4 May until 15 July in the Gadderie exhibition space at at the Shetland Museum and Archives.

Some of the workshops require box office bookings. Please contact the museum for details.

Alex Purbrick