The political strength of Henry VIII's regime lay in his ability to choose advisors who were both wise and learned. One of these men was Sir Brian Tuke. As Master of the Posts, he organized and established England's postal service. In 1528 Sir Brian was appointed treasurer and secretary of the royal household, a position he held until his death in 1545. He was also admired as an eloquent speaker and literary figure who authored a preface to an edition of Chaucer.
The portrait, which shows Tuke at the age of 57, exemplifies the qualities most praised in Holbein's work: precise observation of detail and impartial, accurate portrayal of the face. Yet the image is also tinged with gentle sorrow. On the table beneath Tuke's left hand is a folded paper bearing a quotation from the Book of Job (10:20) which begins, "Are not my days few?" The gravity of the sentiment is echoed in Tuke's countenance; his faint smile is pained and his eyes, fixed but not focused, seem melancholy.
across top: BRIANVS TVKE, MILES, ANo ETATIS SVAE, LVII; across center: .DROIT ET AVANT. (Upright and forward [the sitter's motto]); lower left on folded paper: NVNQVID NON PAVCITAS DIERVM / MEORVM FINIETVR BREVI? (Are not the days of my life few?); at top of cross: INRI
Marks and Labels
Probably Sir Paul Methuen [1672-1757], London; by inheritance to his cousin and godson, Paul Methuen [1723-1795], Corsham Court, Wiltshire; by inheritance to his son, Paul Cobb Methuen [1752-1816], Corsham Court; by inheritance to his son, Paul Methuen, 1st baron Methuen [1779-1849], Corsham Court. Richard Sanderson, London and Edinburgh; (sale, Christie's, London, 17 June 1848, no. 7); possibly to Seguier(?), London. Richard Grosvenor [d. 1869], 2nd marquis of Westminster, Eaton Hall, Cheshire, by 1867; probably by inheritance 1869 to his daughter, Lady Theodora Guest, Inwood, Somerset, until 1913; (Robert Langton Douglas, London), 1913, held jointly with (P. & D. Colnaghi, Ltd., London); sold 20 May 1913 to (M. Knoedler & Co., London and New York); sold April 1914 to Watson B. Dickerman [d. 1923], New York; his widow, Mrs. Watson B. Dickerman, New York, probably 1923-1929/1930; consigned 1929 to (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); purchased April 1930 by Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 30 March 1932 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
- Third Special Exhibition of National Portraits, South Kensington Museum, London, 1868, no. 625.
- Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and by Deceased Masters of the British School, Royal Academy, London, 1880, no. 188.
- Exhibition Illustrative of Early English Portraiture, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1909, no. 43.
- Loan Exhibition of Masterpieces by Old and Modern Painters, M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1915, no. 4.
- Holbein in England, Tate Britain, London, 2006-2007, no. 141, repro.
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- Ganz, Paul. Hans Holbein d.J.: des Meisters Gemälde in 252 Abbildungen. (Klassiker der Kunst, vol. 20) Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1912: 20:79, 238, repro.
- Chamberlain, Arthur B. Hans Holbein the Younger. 2 vols. London, 1913: 1:299, 331-333, 337, repro.
- Tatlock, Robert Rattray. "Sir Bryan Tuke, by Holbein." The Burlington Magazine 42, no 142 (May 1923): 246, 251, repro.
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- Held, Julius S. "Masters of Northern Europe, 1430-1660, in the National Gallery." Art News 40, no. 8 (June 1941): 12.
- Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 99, no. 65.
- National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution. Book of Illustrations. Washington, 1942: 38, 240, fig. 65.
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- Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 63, repro.
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- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 92, color repro.
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- Frankfurter, Alfred. "Midas on Parnassus." Art News Annual no. 28 (1959): 53, repro.
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- Salvini, Roberto and Hans Werner Grohn. L'opera pittorica completa di Holbein il Giovane. Milan, 1971: 107, no. 120, repro.
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- Cherry, John. "The Milton Keynes Medieval Gold Cross." Minerva 3, no. 2 (May/June 1992): 35, fig.
- National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 65, repro.
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- Bätschmann, Oskar, and Pascal Griener. Hans Holbein. Rev. and expanded second edition. Translated from German by Cecilia Hurley and Pascal Griener. London, 2014: 250, 252, color fig. 248.
The painting is composed of two boards with vertical grain. The panel has been thinned very slightly; this is indicated by the presence on the reverse, at the upper right, of a red resinous seal that sits about 2mm above the surface of the panel. The picture has been cradled. Peter Klein's dendrochronological examination indicated that the wood was from the Baltic/Polish region and provided felling dates of 1525 +4/-2 and 1530 +4/-2 for the two boards. Examination with infrared reflectography did not disclose underdrawing. While there are no major alterations, infrared reflectography and x-radiography indicated very minor alterations in the outline of the figure, such as the reduction in size of the outer edge of the left elbow and changes in the position of the thumb.
In general the painting is in very good condition. There are two checks at the left. There is retouching along the left and right edges and scattered retouching in the face and hands. The painting exhibits an unusual craquelure pattern with localized areas of wide drying cracks.
 Also on the reverse is a paper sticker that reads: 93007D/40 x 56/Knoedler/pour ce soir/5 heures.
 Peter Klein, examination report, 3 December 1986, and letter to the author, 28 March 1990, in NGA curatorial files.