The best books on Tudor art and architecture

Elizabeth Goldring Author Of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist
By Elizabeth Goldring

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by the Tudors since childhood – in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that I grew up in the American Midwest, where Tudor artefacts were few and far between. A family holiday to England, when I was fourteen, sparked the beginning of a life-long love affair, which I have been lucky enough to turn into a career focused on all things Tudor. After receiving my PhD from Yale University, I took up a post-doctoral fellowship in England, at Warwick University, with which I have been affiliated ever since. I am currently an Honorary Reader at Warwick and working on a new book, on Hans Holbein.

I wrote...

Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist

By Elizabeth Goldring,

Book cover of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist

What is my book about?

Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619) was the first English-born artist to acquire a reputation for excellence both at home and abroad: court painter to Elizabeth I, he counted the Medici, the Valois, the Habsburgs, and the Bourbons among his Continental admirers. Although Hilliard worked in a wide range of media, his fame derives from his miniatures: exceptionally detailed portraits executed in watercolour on vellum, many no larger than a modern watch-face. In this illustrated biography, I have tried to reveal both the man and the artist, tracing Hilliard’s personal struggles and rise to fame, his quest to become the social equal of his sitters, his role as teacher to the next generation of English painters, and his influence on writers like John Donne. 
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Picture and Poetry, 1560-1620: Relations Between Literature and the Visual Arts in the English Renaissance

Why did I love this book?

A quirky and brilliantly insightful book which is now, unfortunately, out of print. But do snap it up if you chance upon it in a second-hand bookshop or can find a copy online. It is deceptively modest-looking: a slender paperback, with only a handful of illustrations. My hunch is that it will change the way you think about paintings, sculptures, and buildings in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, and their contemporaries. Certainly, that is the effect it had on me.

By Lucy Gent,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Picture and Poetry, 1560-1620 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An interdisciplinary study that shows how works of art influenced English poets in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Included in the appendix is a survey of the ownership and distribution of books of art and architecture in English Renaissance libraries. Very light foxing on front panel. iv , 100 pages. stiff paper wrappers. small 8vo..

Book cover of Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House

Why did I love this book?

Alas, now out of print, this book is part biography, part architectural history, and part social history. The mason-architect Robert Smythson comes to life, as do the houses he designed and the eccentric patrons who employed him. The book's (mainly black-and-white) illustrations inevitably look a bit dated now. But the text is, to my mind, hard to beat: utterly engrossing, particularly when dealing with Hardwick Hall, a house Girouard knows intimately, having lived there as a small child. I remember stumbling across this book many years ago, as a student, while looking for something else at the library. I ended up spending the better part of the day reading Robert Smythson from cover to cover: it was a revelation that a work of scholarship could be so beautifully written.

By Mark Girouard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Describes the career of the seventeenth-century British architect, looks at his designs for rural mansions and castles, and discusses his contributions to their interior decoration

Book cover of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

Why did I love this book?

Strictly speaking, this is not a book about Tudor art or architecture. Rather, it tells the gripping story of a pivotal year in the life of Shakespeare – and Shakespeare’s England. Drawing on all manner of sources, including household inventories and travel diaries kept by foreign visitors to London and the provinces, Shapiro vividly evokes the textures of life in sixteenth-century England: from the humble stained cloths that adorned the walls of taverns and comparatively modest households like the one in which Shakespeare was raised to the tapestries, oil paintings and other objets d’art that lined the walls of the Tudor elite’s long galleries. 1599 reads like a novel – and, like all of the books on this list, is proof that academic writing need not be dry.

By James Shapiro,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What accounts for Shakespeare’s transformation from talented poet and playwright to one of the greatest writers who ever lived? In this gripping account, James Shapiro sets out to answer this question, "succeed[ing] where others have fallen short." (Boston Globe)

1599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England. During that year, Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who…

Book cover of The Elizabethan Image: An Introduction to English Portraiture, 1558-1603

Why did I love this book?

Strong is the undisputed doyen of Elizabethan painting. As Assistant Keeper (1959-67) and Director (1967-73) of the National Portrait Gallery and then Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1973-87), he devoted the better part of thirty years to groundbreaking exhibitions and publications on the Tudor court. His writings, more than anyone else’s, are what led me to Tudor art. This book distills the essence of Strong’s many seminal works from a long and distinguished career, but adds glorious new colour photography and generous nods to the art historians who have come after him. Strong wears his learning lightly, making this an ideal gateway text for anyone seeking a way into the world of Elizabethan painting and portraiture.

By Roy Strong,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Elizabethan Image as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fifty years after his seminal Tate gallery London exhibition, 'The Elizabethan Image', leading authority Roy Strong returns with fresh eyes to the subject closest to his heart, The Virgin Queen, her court and our first Elizabethan age

From celebrated portraits of the Queen and paintings of knights and courtiers, to works depicting an aspiring 'middle class', Strong presents a detailed and authoritative examination of one of the most fascinating periods of British art. Enriching previous perceptions and ways of seeing the Elizabethans in their world, he reveals an age parallel in many ways to our own-a country aspiring professionally and…

Houses of Power

By Simon Thurley,

Book cover of Houses of Power

Why did I love this book?

A learned, yet eminently readable, book which synthesizes and knits together the findings contained in several of Thurley’s earlier, landmark publications, including The Royal Palaces of Tudor England (Yale, 1993) and Whitehall Palace (Merrell, 2008). Houses of Power is a compact volume (and available in paperback, too). I have often taken my copy with me for reference when visiting the sites described in it. Thurley’s illustrations include fascinating conjectural reconstructions of buildings that either no longer survive or have been greatly altered since Tudor times. A wonderful tool when trying to visualize now-lost buildings.

By Simon Thurley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Houses of Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What was it like to live as a royal Tudor? Why were their residences built as they were and what went on inside their walls? Who slept where and with who? Who chose the furnishings? And what were their passions?

The Tudors ruled through the day, throughout the night, in the bath, in bed and in the saddle. Their palaces were genuine power houses - the nerve-centre of military operations, the boardroom for all executive decisions and the core of international politics. Houses of Power is the result of Simon Thurley's thirty years of research, picking through architectural digs, and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in 16th century, theatres, and William Shakespeare?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about 16th century, theatres, and William Shakespeare.

16th Century Explore 74 books about 16th century
Theatres Explore 75 books about theatres
William Shakespeare Explore 176 books about William Shakespeare