Much ado about nothing – or ‘a storm in a Tudor tankard’.

Another media frenzy regarding Anne Boleyn’s facial features.

I picked the wrong day to be away from my desk and out of contact yesterday. If not when the worlds media ignited once again over Anne Boleyn I might have been able to set the record straight, or at least been credited for my work.

Professors Amit Roy Chowdhury and Conrad Rudolf of University of California in Riverside have in recent years used facial recognition technology to identify historical portraits, with some interesting results. I read about their work in May 2012 and wrote to Conrad Rudolf suggesting that it might be interesting to examine the many portraits that are claimed to be of Anne Boleyn.

I had just completed, with the permission of The British Museum, my study of what is the only surviving and undisputed contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn – the Moost Happi Anno 1534 medal, and had concluded that it contained much more data than had previously supposed. The medal is made from lead and though there is no sign of willful damage careless storage in the past had resulted in some compression of the features.  This lead historians to dismiss the value of this image as a tool for comparison.


However, on close examination I saw that it was only Anne’s left eye and her nose that had been displaced and that all other details could be viewed in great and precise detail. The quality of craftsmanship was so high that even the weave of the fabric on her headdress, the jeweled billiment and the necklace could be identified as that worn by Jane Seymour in a portrait by Holbein.

4a JaneSeymour Holbein portrait with pearl and jewel necklace

In fact, elements of the costume and jewelery worn in the Moost Happi medal can be found in a number of portraits of Henry’s other wives.  The necklace is the same (different pendant) but the Gable Hood differs in the disputed Nidd Hall portrait.  Though the sitter in this painting wears a brooch with the initials AB some historians believe that this is actually a portrait of Jane Seymour – amended and embellished during Elizabeth I’s reign during a renewed appetite for portraits of the queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn.

5aAnn Boleyn Nidd Hall portrait with pearl and jewel necklace

I wondered whether a facial recognition technology might throw some light on the alignment of the sitter’s features in the Nidd Hall portrait, and Conrad Rudolf was happy to Include these images, and those of other members of the Tudor family, in his latest study.

Alas, by early 2014 it was clear that the results were inconclusive;  this particular method does not work so well when the subject is in a three-quarter position (as opposed to full-faced or side profile). As many of the Tudor portraits were shown from this angle the results were negligible. As a result, according to Conrad Rudolf, the data concerning Anne Boleyn will not be included in the final FACES project report, which is due to be published shortly.

Nevertheless the mere unofficial mention of Anne Boleyn was enough to send the worlds media into a frenzy. When speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Jose earlier this month a reporter asked Professor Roy-Chowdhury for some samples of their data.  His assistant provided the reporter with a full file of research results – including the study of Anne Boleyn. Despite the results had been rejected by the research team as being inconclusive, the journalist was able to concoct a story out of the slim data, and this went on to be reported in newspapers across the world.

To demonstrate their point The Sydney Morning Herald featured my reconstruction of the Moost Happi medal spliced with an image of the Nidd Hall portrait .  This was repeated in other Australian other newspapers, again without citing me as the sculptor of this image. Alison Weir and Susan Bordo were contacted by reporters and both kindly directed them to me with regards to the featured medal. However I was away from my computer yesterday and without phone coverage and so missed the opportunity to set the record straight.

If you would like to know more about the Moost Happi medal and my reconstruction of Anne’s features can read my report here:

To see the article in The Sydney Morning Herald featuring the spliced image of my Moost Happi medal reconstruction and the Nidd Hall portrait see: