Art Gallery of NSW staff and UNSW researchers are using 21st century analytical and visualisation technologies to reveal centuries-old secrets in a portrait of Henry VIII.

Henry VR is the AGNSW's first virtual reality exhibition, focusing on the restoration of a Tudor portrait of Henry VIII held in the Gallery’s collection.

This exhibition is an opportunity to journey deep inside a Tudor period painting to explore the hidden life of a king’s portrait, and the studio workshop of the artists who painted it. Henry VR uses virtual reality technologies to complement the mission of the AGNSW and UNSW's commitment to research and innovation, to interpret, present and preserve works of art.

After a detailed technical study and extensive conservation treatment, the AGNSW's 16th-century portrait of Henry VIII is being shown for the first time in decades, returning to star in a groundbreaking virtual reality display in the heart of the AGNSW's European galleries.

King Henry VIII is presented in the company of further 16th-century Flemish and Italian portraits from the Gallery’s collection, which together form a picture of the art of portraiture in the late renaissance. 

To create the VR experience a network of information has been visualised so that you can investigate the world when Henry was alive. Through the wonders of particle accelerators and scanning electron microscopes, virtual objects and elemental maps, the painting’s materials start to reveal the artwork’s social and historical context, allowing unprecedented insights into a work that emerged at the very birth of modern portrait painting.

The VR installation transports viewers into a reconstruction of a 16th century London artists’ workshop, where they can experiment with the materials and pigments used to create the painting and experience the sights and sounds of Tudor-Era London before teleporting inside a particle accelerator to view the unique X-Ray fluorescence elemental maps produced at the Australian Synchrotron during the restoration process. 

The display at the AGNSW  includes the fully restored painting, now presented in an appropriately Tudor-style reproduction frame, and two VR stations, which will transport you into the imagined artist’s workshop in Tudor London.

Visitors are encouraged to explore the making of the painting and discover more about the panel’s scientific analysis, which used the cutting edge technology of a particle accelerator.

Exhibition dates: 12 May – 9 September 2018.

Project team

Art Gallery of NSW

Dr Paula Dredge,
Head, Paintings Conservation / Research & scientific investigations

Dr Anne Gerard-Austin
Assistant Curator, International Art / Curatorial & historical research

Simon Ives
Senior Paintings Conservator / Research, science & conservation treatment 

Tom Langlands
Frame maker / Reproduction frame maker

Dr Margaret Sawicki
Head, Frame Conservation / Frame research


Dr Andrew Yip
Project Director - Fellow, iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, UNSW   

Nicola Best
Immersive systems engineer -  iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, UNSW

Dr Daryl Howard
X-Ray Microscopy Beamline Scientist -  Australian Synchrotron

Dr Matthew Brookhouse
Research Fellow, School of Biology -  Dendrochronology, Australian National University

Conservation Benefactors

Friends of Conservation

Len Groat

Hamish Parker

Kenneth Reed AM


This installation was made possible through the support of the following people and organisations:

VR content and project management

  • iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research, University of NSW, Sydney

  • Dr Andrew Yip, project director, UNSW, Sydney

  • Nicola Best, immersive systems engineer, UNSW, Sydney

Conservation research and imaging

  • Australian Synchrotron, with funding by the NSW State Government Office of Science and Research NSW Industry Synchrotron Access Scheme

With thanks also to 

  • Australian Museum, Sydney, for allowing us to photograph minerals

  • Dr Matthew Brookhouse, research fellow in the Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra, for analysing and dating the painting’s wood panel

  • Prof Sarah Kenderdine, former director of the Laboratory for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, University of New South Wales, for high resolution scanning

  • NewSpec for the trial of a Hitachi scanning electron microscope TM3030 to examine and analyse paint samples