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Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I are the most complex and varied of all English royal portraiture, ranging from the earliest depiction of the submissive thirteen-year-old Princess (1) to the most elaborate portraits of the commanding ‘Virgin Queen’. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, had realised the political potential of the portrait, which he used to personify his divinely appointed power and emphasise the strength of the Tudor Dynasty. Elizabeth, however, was an unmarried female monarch in a patriarchal society and her determination not to marry caused unprecedented problems for portraitists. The idea of a single woman inheriting the throne and ruling the country was entirely alien (2). Rejecting the Renaissance advances in perspective and shading which had been introduced to England by Hans Holbein, Elizabeth cultivated a complex iconography, an uncompromising statement of her absolute imperial power, which changed the face of British painting until Van Dyck’s arrival in 1620.
This regal portrait, attributed by Sir Roy Strong to the Queen’s Sergeant-Painter George Gower, is a version of the famous ‘Armada’ portrait, the two most famous of which belong to the National Portrait Gallery, London and to Woburn Abbey. Gower’s portrait, a celebration of victory against the Spanish, was a declaration of the strength of Elizabeth’s rule (3). As Sir Roy Strong suggests, the painting can be read as a whole and in separate ‘portions’ at the same time. Elizabeth conveys simultaneously her authoritative body politic and her physical existence as a woman, carefully manipulating her sexuality to proclaim her power.
At Tilbury, when the Queen spoke to the English troops as the Spanish Armada approached, Elizabeth told her subjects that she was resolved in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all - to lay down for my God, and for my kingdoms, and for my people, my honour and my blood even in the dust (4). Here the Queen asserted her authority and her honour in a way usually reserved for men – that of fortitude in the face of battle. In the same manner, in the larger ‘Armada’ portraits, Elizabeth, whose heavily made-up face is endowed with political authority (5), asserts England’s imperial power through her hand, which rests on a globe, in particular on the continent of North America. Above the globe rests the crown, a reminder of Elizabeth’s constitutional power. In the background, the Spanish Armada approaches England in fair weather on Elizabeth’s left, where evil traditionally sits, and meets its doom to the right.
In this version of Gower’s masterpiece, Elizabeth’s posture and the large sleeves of her dress dominate the pictorial space and echo the effect of Henry VIII’s broad-shouldered stance in Holbein’s late portraits. The bodice of her dress tapers into a stiff triangle, calling to mind an armoured breastplate, whilst the patterns of pearls form a heraldic design. Costume carried an important political message in the Tudor court, indicating rank, as did coats of arms.
Elizabethan dress always is blindingly rich in lace work and jewellery (6). However, no costume should outshine the monarch’s.
The eye is deliberately drawn to Elizabeth’s face, the focal point on the canvas, other-worldly, its smooth pale skin translucent enough to show the underlying veins on her temple. The Queen, whose artistic mind worked entirely in symbolism, dismissed shadow as a counteraction to her image of purity (7) and in later years she created a ‘mask of youth’ to sustain a public face of immortality, especially as she had not declared a successor. In the Rainbow Portrait, painted when she was aged sixty-three, she appears as a young maiden with loose hair, an uncovered chest and spring flowers, her hair spilling down like a bride’s.
Elizabeth’s femininity and proclaimed virginity is ever-present within her portraiture. In her delicate white hand (8) she holds the familiar symbol of womanhood, a fan; her richly ornamented dress is decorated with large pink bows. Pearls were an overt reference to the Queen’s virginity, whilst her favored colours, black and white, symbolised constancy and purity.
This portrait belonged to Charles I, an important connoisseur and voracious collector. He presented it to Judge Twysden, a staunch royalist throughout the political upheaval of the Civil War. At the Restoration, Judge Twysden was knighted and made a judge of the King’s bench.
(1) Painted around 1546, to present the princess as a potential bride to European royalty.
(2) The unmarried state was regarded as dangerous. Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) in The Instruction of Christian Woman (trans. Rycharde Hyrde, London 1524) recommends that parents keep their daughters, especially when they begin to grow from a child’s state, and hold them from men’s company. Quoted by Kate Aughterson, Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook, Routledge, London 1995.
(3)There was a huge demand for the Queen’s portrait following the defeat of the Armada.
(4) 18th August 1588.
(5) As opposed to Gower’s contemporary, Titian, who would go to great lengths to convey the psychology of his sitters.
(6) Very different to Velazquez’s sober portraits of the Hapsburgs, where Philip IV was often portrayed in a plain black costume.
(7) Isaac Oliver, who had seen first hand the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, once attempted to introduced the curious techniques of shading and modelling to Elizabeth’s face, only to have his work dismissed as unflattering.
(8) White hands suggested that a lady led a genteel life and did not engage in any activity that would dirty or roughen them.
The Royal Collection
King Charles I; given to:
Judge Twysden (or Twisden) of Bradbourne
By descent in the family; their sale:
Christies London 11 May 1894; sold to:
Charles H. A. Butler Esq.
Christie's London, Highly Important Pictures by Old Masters, Property of the Late Charles Butler, 25th and 26th May 1911 (withdrawn)
By descent in the family to 2005
London, New Gallery, The Monarchs of Great Britain and Ireland 1902, number 81
Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses, Amazons. 1500-1650, February-May 2002, number 63; then travelling to:
Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, September-December 2002
The Sphere, 1902, illustrated
Roy Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, Oxford at the Clarendon Press 1963, page 75, catalogue number 69
Roy Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, HMSO London 1969, page 111
Annette Dixon, Women Who Ruled: Queens, Goddess, Amazons 1500-1650, catalogue for the touring exhibition, Merrell and University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2002, illustrated pages 21 and 140, catalogue number 63