Six Lives: The Stories of Henry VIII’s Queens at the National Portrait Gallery

Black and white photograph of Anne Boleyn's waxwork model from Madame Tussauds, taken by Hiroshi Sugimoto in 1999 and featuring in the National Portrait Gallery's Six Lives exhibition.

Image credit: Anne Boleyn by Hiroshi Sugimoto, 1999 © Hiroshi Sugimoto. Collection of Odawara Art Foundation.

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing a major exhibition exploring the lives of the six wives of Henry VIII through their portrayal in art.


Six Lives examines how the wives of Henry VIII, a popular source of inspiration for writers and artists, have been represented both historically and in popular culture through over 140 objects.

From Hans Holbein the Younger’s commissioned works to drawings and paintings created since their deaths, their own possessions, examples of their portrayals in film and on stage to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s breathtaking series of black and white photographs of their Madame Tussauds models, this thought-provoking exhibition gives each queen the consideration they deserve.

Dr Charlotte Bolland (Senior Curator of Research and 16th Century Collections at the National Portrait Gallery) explains: “Henry VIII was the star around which the country and Tudor court orbited. In his nearly 38-year reign, the six women who married him were protagonists in an almost implausible melodrama. Often reduced to the rhyme ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died / Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’, this exhibition seeks to restore the queens’ individuality and agency in both historic and contemporary storytelling, bringing them out of Henry’s shadow and their homogenous grouping. By encountering the court culture in which they performed their roles as queens, the images of their families and peers, the works that they commissioned, the objects they owned and even the letters and notes that they wrote, we cannot fail to glimpse them as individuals. In this exhibition, the faint surviving traces of each queen are displayed alongside the portraits that have helped to turn them into icons.”

Exhibition highlights include Katherine of Aragon’s writing box, Anne of Cleves’ accounts book and, on public display for the first time, a prayer book written by Katherine Parr.

The exhibition will run until 8 September.

To continue the theme…

Why not extend your exploration of the six queens by seeing the celebrated musical Six? Described as a “royal retelling of the sassiest story in British Her-story”, Six tells the stories of the queens through the most brilliant concert-style show. It’s currently running at the Vaudeville Theatre on The Strand.

Getting there

The National Portrait Gallery is situated on St Martin’s Place, just off Trafalgar Square. From Hertford Street it’s a flat, 23-minute walk; alternatively you can take the 9-minute ride on the Piccadilly line from Green Park to Leicester Square.

The Vaudeville Theatre is a seven-minute walk from the National Portrait Gallery.

Also in the area

The National Gallery
Covent Garden
Somerset House

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