When, from 1903 to 1906, Ford Madox Ford struggled with illness so disconcerting it required continental treatment, he ventured to the spas of Germany. Alongside undergoing the many ‘nerve cures’ recommended for an impressive diagnostic register, he also researched a short monograph on Hans Holbein the Younger. Its composition, according to Ford’s reminiscences in Return to Yesterday, apparently alleviated his problems to a much greater degree than the ‘wickedly unskilful doctoring’ to which he was voluntarily subjecting himself.1 Holbein’s career took him to London, where he painted his famous oils of the ambassadors, the German merchant Georg Gisze and the court of Henry VIII. In the Holbein monograph, Ford commented repeatedly on the ugliness of Holbein’s English sitters and his irregular, adulterous lifestyle about which so little was known. Like Ford himself, the painter negotiated two cultures and represented individuals whose lives reflected similar vicissitudes – the German merchants, Anna of Cleve and his own wife. To reveal the ‘underlying truths’ of his sitters, to strip them of costume and pose and capture their alienation as a hallmark of individuality made him, for Ford, the first of the ‘modern painters’.2 This alienated modernity is later qualified not as an immediate characteristic of the rendition, a sincere opaqueness of style, but as a hallmark of the modern era:

He has left us a picture of his world, as it were, upon a grey day. Other artists have given us more light and more shadow or more shadow alone. But no other artist has left a more sincere rendering of his particular world, and no other artist’s particular world is compact [composed] of simulacra more convincing, more illusory, more calculated to hold our attentions. He has redeemed a whole era for us from oblivion, and he has forced us to believe that his vision of it was the only feasible one.3