Wolf Hall is wrong: Thomas More was a funny, feminist Renaissance man
He was a literary wit, a family man … and a proto-feminist. Evidence that Hilary Mantel’s version of More is a travesty abounds in Hans Holbein’s revealing painting and the statesman’s own masterpiece, Utopia
Why does Wolf Hall demonise one of the most brilliant and forward-looking of all Renaissance people? Its caricature of Thomas More as a charmless prig, a humourless alienating nasty piece of work, is incredibly unfair. You only have to consider one of Hans Holbein’s greatest works to see this.
Thomas More and his family were still settling into their new house near the river Thames when they all posed for Holbein. It was a new kind of portrait – an emotional revolution, even.
For this Tudor statesman did not just want Holbein to paint him, but to include all his nearest and dearest in what was clearly intended as a companionate image of family life, like nothing hitherto seen in Britain. Women and men all gather together sociably in a little community. On the compositional drawing that survives, More has annotated Holbein’s design. Next to Holbein’s depiction of his wife kneeling, More asks for a change – she should be sitting in a chair, not kneeling like a servant!
Tragically, Holbein’s painting is lost. The drawings and copy that survive, however, tell a story of a truly loving family and a politician with almost feminist ideas, by the standards of the time. A copy by a 16th-century artist in the National Portrait Gallery proves that More got his way with the kneeling. All the women depicted are seated, reflecting More’s written instruction to do away with that particular bit of gender hierarchy.