Henry’s 88 faces

Bridgewater State University art professor paints series of portraits transporting Britain’s infamous 16th-century monarch into the present

Pity the Fool King Henry VIII with Mr. T, from the 1980s television show, “The A-Team.’’ Pity the Fool King Henry VIII with Mr. T, from the 1980s television show, “The A-Team.’’
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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Imagine King Henry VIII is standing on a sandy beach, posing with a surfboard. He’s wearing green shorts and a Tudor-style hat, and his bare chest is covered with curly hair. The sky is reddish-pink. Waves are rolling in the ocean behind him.

Or imagine the king dressed like a punk. He’s sporting a single loop earring in his left ear. His white tank top is ripped to shreds, and day-old stubble pokes out from his cheeks.

Those are two of the improbable portraits of British royalty created by Stephen F. Smalley, a professor emeritus of art at Bridgewater State University who will be exhibiting his King Henry VIII paintings at the Diehl Art Gallery in Bridgewater this month.

The show will feature up to 20 of Smalley’s paintings that depict King Henry VIII in a variety of quirky styles and settings: King Henry as a cowboy. King Henry as a graffiti artist. King Henry as a sumo wrestler. King Henry as a London rude boy in sunglasses and a porkpie hat. Henry as a ballplayer for the New York Yankees. There’s even one of Henry wearing the festive fruit hat made famous by 1940s film star Carmen Miranda.

Smalley said he has a “considerable interest in the history of the British monarchy’’ and chose Henry VIII as a subject because he “might be as well known as one can get in that line of succession.’’

The series began about three years ago, and Smalley isn’t done yet. His goal is to complete 88 paintings of the notorious king, who’s best remembered for having six wives (and ordering the execution of two of them). At this point, about 70 of the portraits are finished or nearly finished.

“Eighty-eight is my absolute goal,’’ said Smalley.

Why 88?

“Well, it’s better than 87,’’ said Smalley, with a smirk. “Eighty-eight — there’s a bounce, a rhythm to it.’’

Smalley has a long history in Bridgewater: He joined the art faculty at Bridgewater State in 1972, served as department chairman for 12 years, and taught courses on drawing, painting, and contemporary British and American art, specializing in pop art and abstract expressionism. He’s also led honors-level colloquiums on such topics as graffiti, Andy Warhol, comic book art, and beat culture.

Over the course of his lengthy career, Smalley, 69, has exhibited his work in China and England, as well as several colleges and universities (including Wheelock College, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Monmouth University, and his alma mater, Pennsylvania State University).

These days, Smalley teaches one day a week at Bridgewater State and devotes much of his free time to working on his King Henry VIII project. He paints every day in the art studio in the basement of his Bridgewater home, where pop art inspiration abounds. Upon a shelf in his studio sit Hulk Hogan and Batman figurines, toy penguins, and a Campbell’s Soup can. Over a dozen unfinished King Henry VIII portraits hang on the wall.

Most of his paintings measure about 6 by 5 inches. He used watercolors, gouache (a type of opaque paint), acrylic inks, acrylic paint (“sparingly’’), and glitter to create them. Each took 50 hours or more to complete. And that’s painting time only; it doesn’t include the time spent doing research, conceptualizing, prep work, or cleaning brushes.

The surfer version of Henry VIII is titled “Sunset Empire Dude.’’ The image is a quirky take on the king’s infamous reign. “I was thinking about Henry and his quest to expand his empire, and I thought maybe he’d go to Southern California with his surfboard,’’ said Smalley, cracking a smile.

Smalley has been having fun with this particular figure in British history, whom he refers to simply as “Henry.’’

Another image shows Henry standing by a large boulder emblazoned with graffiti. A can of spray paint rests at his feet, which he apparently used to write three of his wives’ names — Annie, Anne, Jane — in bubble letters on the rock.

“It’s become a history lesson,’’ said Smalley. “I guess history can be playful.’’

Smalley included modern-day pop icons in some of the portraits. One image shows Henry surrounded by women, and shows the faces of three legendary ladies of rock: Debbie Harry, Annie Lennox, and Siouxsie Sioux.

Another one, entitled “Pity the Fool,’’ shows the burly 1980s actor Mr. T pointing his finger as Henry reclines nearby in his throne. The image is rich in color and detail. It’s one of Smalley’s favorites. Smalley said the inspiration for it came from Will Somers, a court jester, or fool, who was reportedly a Henry confidante.

John Diehl, the owner of the Diehl Art Gallery, is looking forward to hosting the “Henry VIII’’ exhibition, which opens Saturday. This will be the first public showing of the portraits.

“I’m hoping we’ll have a great turnout,’’ said Diehl. “His work is whimsical and clever, very interesting, and something you usually don’t see.’’

Diehl is an artist and Bridgewater State alumnus (class of 2005) who’s familiar with Smalley’s work. And Smalley is familiar with the building at 27 Central Square in Bridgewater, which houses Diehl’s gallery. During the 1970s, Smalley used the top floor as his art studio.

“It’s a full-circle experience for both of us,’’ said Diehl, who opened the gallery last March. “He has a real tie to the building.’’

The Diehl Art Gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays 1 to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The “Henry VIII’’’ exhibition runs through March 5. The opening reception will be held Saturday from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, call 508-818-8368. Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.