Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, the ‘Drewe Portrait’, late 1580s. 1580s

George Gower, Attributed to d.1596

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, the ‘Drewe Portrait’, late 1580s., George Gower, Attributed to
Oil on Panel
16th Century
33 x 28 inches, 84 x 71 cm
Edward Drewe (c. 1540-1598) Thence by descent until 1903, when acquired by another branch of the Drewe Family Thence by descent until 2005 Chris Nightingale Esq., of Appleby Castle, Cumbria Historical Portraits Ltd.
Roy Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, (Oxford 1963) p.64 no.42 Roy Strong, Gloriana, the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (London 1987) p89, fig. 75 Ian Tyers, Dendrochronological report (University of Sheffield 2005)
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This image, and those generated around it, represent one of the most successful sovereign statements of English history. It was painted under the aegis of the Queen’s own official Serjeant painter, George Gower, in the late 1580s, the decade in which she finally defeated the Spanish threat, and assured her place as one of England’s most successful and popular monarchs. The portrait was owned by Edward Drewe MP, one of Elizabeth’s ablest lawyers, and has remained in his family ever since. A family legend suggests that the portrait was the gift of Elizabeth herself. It is in part through such portraits that the mystique and power of Elizabeth I was conveyed in her day. As such it is not merely a portrait of a monarch, but a symbolic statement of national supremacy.

George Gower was Elizabeth’s Serjeant Painter from 1581 until his death in 1596. He was also a ‘gentleman’, being the grandson of Sir John Gower of Stettenham, Yorkshire. This was not only unusual for the time (hitherto, artists were effectively ranked as servants), but reveals the increasing status – and importance – of portraiture in sixteenth century England. There is little documentary evidence on Gower’s career, but there is no doubt that he was one of the leading English artists of his generation. His documented portraits, such as those of Sir Thomas and Lady Kytson (1573 Tate Gallery, London) show that he commanded the patronage of the important and wealthy from an early age, while his self-portrait (1579, the first known example by an English artist on such a scale) gives a clear indication of the bold characterization with which he depicted his subjects.

Gower’s technique and style is distinct, and perfectly suited to the display of power, and conspicuous monarchical grandeur seen here. His use of strong light on the head enables his subject’s face to stand out from the rest of the painting, and was perfectly suited to Elizabeth’s personal wish to avoid any shadows across her face. His reluctance to rely too heavily on drawing is made up by strong flesh tones and subtle shadows, so that the face is rendered with precision and power, aided by bold features such as the well-delineated eyes. The unmistakably warm and dry palette has the happy effect of seeming to depict the Queen in the heavy make-up on which she increasingly came to rely. In this example, the overall effect is one of power rather than beauty – but such is Gower’s skill that our focus is held unmistakably by Elizabeth’s face and strong gaze, despite the rich and bright details of her luxurious costume.

There are elsewhere in the portrait signs of a master’s touch. The subtle but noticeable pink tones in the ruff under Elizabeth’s chin skillfully illustrates the reflection of her face in the white lace, giving the ruff a three-dimensional effect so often lacking in sixteenth century portraiture. The deft modeling (with even the hint of veins) in the long and elegant hands of which Elizabeth was so proud is superb, while the folds and lace on the golden silk of her sleeves is redolent of Holbein’s supreme skill in depicting the rich quality of Royal costumes.

As with all portraits of the Queen, there comes the question of the level of her personal involvement. Of course, she did not sit for the many contemporary portraits of her that survive. Instead, artists would have followed patterns of her face, and then either have imagined her costume, or in some cases have painted the actual garment itself. The patterns would have been widely-circulated, and the Queen’s likeness then either traced onto a panel or drawn freehand. Surviving examples of patterns are rare, but those of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Henry Sidney can be found in the National Portrait Gallery, as can one previously believed to show Elizabeth herself.

Which ‘pattern’, therefore, is the Drewe portrait based on? Sir Roy Strong’s catalogue of 1963, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, and subsequent Gloriana, The Portraits of Elizabeth I were vital works in dating and attributing the many (invariably unsigned) portraits. According to Strong’s categorization, the Drewe portrait is based on the ‘Darnley’ face pattern, after a painting dated c. 1575 once owned by the Earls of Darnley, and now in the National Portrait Gallery attributed to Federico Zuccaro, an Italian landscape and religious painter to whom the Queen sat for a drawing in May 1575.[1] The Darnley pattern, Strong points out, does not change until the ‘Armada pattern’ is developed, apparently by Gower, c.1588.

And yet, such categorization carries with it the disappointing notion that all portraits of the Queen between c.1575 and 1588 are derivatives, completed at a distance from Elizabeth herself. This clearly cannot be the case with the Drewe portrait. Though Elizabeth is shown in a similar (if reversed) profile, she is unquestionably a different woman to that in the Darnley portrait: noticeably hierarchical, sepulchral in characterization, perhaps reflecting the progression of her historical achievements. It seems implausible that Gower, the Queen’s Serjeant Painter, would have been content to follow a pattern. Rather, he may instead have felt constrained by the dictates of Royal iconography to follow an approved pose – just as Henry VIII was invariably portrayed full-face.

It is to the Queen herself that we should seek an explanation for the repetitive nature of her portraits. From the note of her conversation with Nicholas Hilliard in c.1572 it seems she resolved that her portraits should have no “shadowe at all”[2]. After all, Royal portraits were primarily symbols of power combined with obsequious flattery, not simple likenesses. Considerations of deference (and by the 1580s her fading beauty) further forbade any attempt at realism. And artist’s had to operate within an accepted Royal iconography that began in the fifteenth century. It is certain, however, that Gower’s official position, and the fact that he was a gentleman by birth, would have guaranteed him access to the Queen. The Drewe portrait, with its delicately observed facial contours and expressive, piercing eyes, is a world away from the pallid and formulaic pattern portraits of Elizabeth, reflecting an authority derived from one who had access to the royal presence.

The provenance of this portrait is of interest, and helps confirm the attribution to George Gower. It has traditionally hung in the Grange, the Devon seat of the Drewe family, since its construction by Edward Drewe in the 1590s. Drewe was one of the ablest lawyers of the 16th Century. After a spell at Oxford (while apparently a teenager) he began to practice law at the Inner Temple in 1560. He was called to the Bar in 1574. From then he rose rapidly through the legal ranks; a Justice of the Peace in 1579, and a Member of Parliament (for Lyme Regis) in 1584. He must then have been well-known to the Queen and Privy Council, for in 1588 he was amongst those sharp legal minds, along with Francis Bacon, called to draft Government legislation. The letter makes flattering reading;
“Her Majestie… hath made especiall choice of you, upon knowledge of your sinceritie and sufficiencie in that behalfe, to proceede to the consideracion what statutes in your opinion were requisite to be either established or perfected for the better…
We bid you very hertely farewll.”[3]

In 1589 he was appointed a Serjeant-at-law, and became more familiar to the key members of Elizabeth’s Government. Perhaps his most powerful ally was Francis Russell, the second Earl of Bedford. He corresponded regularly with William Cecil, Lord Burghley. And in 1593 he is recorded as making a speech before the Queen when introducing the Lord Mayor of London to Court. Drewe’s correspondence with the Privy Council typically revolved around interrogations of suspects such as Jesuit spies, often in the Tower of London, and he became an important part of the security apparatus first set-up by Francis Walsingham. One case involved the hapless Yorke and Williams, who, “when confronted together, Yorke swore that they took the sacrament to kill the Queen, and that Williams had wished his sword in her belly.”[4] By 1593 Drewe held the prestigious parliamentary seat of the City of London, and in 1596 he was made a Queen’s Serjeant, and a judge on the Northern circuit. He died suddenly, of ‘gaol fever’, in 1598.

Drewe’s central role in the legal apparatus of the Government helps confirm an attribution to George Gower as the artist of this portrait. Gower had been appointed, in 1581, as the Queen’s Serjeant Painter. In 1584 an attempt was made to make Gower solely responsible for portraits of the Queen, a move that reinforced the government’s wish to maintain control of the Queen’s image. Some twenty years earlier, the Privy Council, at the Queen’s behest, had also attempted a similar measure in reaction to the increasing number of debased images of Elizabeth in circulation. And in 1596, the Privy Council ordered that public officers should aid Gower in seeking out and destroying those unofficial images which caused the Queen “great offence”[5].

The Council’s failure, and that of Gower in the 1580s, is belied by the profusion of awkward and unsatisfactory images of the Queen which survive to this day. Nevertheless, a man of Drewe’s public position would have been the most unlikely person to either commission or own in the 1580s and 90s a portrait of the Queen that did not come from the Serjeant Painter’s ‘official’ workshop. Furthermore, in 1593 Drewe made a speech in Parliament against foreign workers in London, advocating support for “our countrymen” over charity to “strangers”, which sentiments would appear to rule out his patronage of any Flemish or Italian artist.[6] Finally, it may also be worth noting the connection between Drewe and the Bedford family, who commissioned the Armada portrait from Gower in 1588.

The Queen’s jewelry is worth noting here, and may assist in the precise dating of this portrait. Here, the jewelry worn by the Queen (aside from that embroidered into her costume) is surprisingly simple – only a double row of pearls. This is identical to the jewelry worn in the Darnley portrait dated c.1575, as is the chain of pearls and jewels around her waist. And such a combination can again be found in other portraits by Gower of the 1580s, Cornelius Ketel’s ‘Sieve’ portrait c.1580-3, and Marcus Gheerearts the Elder’s c.1585 full length. Furthermore, the lack of certain jewelry again suggests a date in the 1580s, for when Leicester died in 1588 he bequeathed to his 2most dear and gracious Sovereign whose creature under God I have been”[7] an extraordinarily large and elaborate jewel of emeralds, with a rope of 600 pearls. Elizabeth, who locked herself in her room on hearing Leicester’s demise, is shown wearing his gift in the Armada portraits of post c.1588, and other later variants – but not here.

[1] Zuccaro had traveled to England apparently at the behest of Lord Leicester. Though some have assumed his purpose was to paint the Queen, it is possible that he had been summoned by Leicester to decorate the interior of Kenilworth Castle (now ruined), before the Queen was due to stay there in July 1575. The exquisite chalk and pencil drawing of the Queen by Zuccaro survives (British Museum), along with a pendant of Leicester. However, there seems little connection between the drawing, either in likeness or style, to the ‘Darnley’ portrait in the NPG.
[2] Strong, loc.cit., p16
[3] Letter from Privy Council to Drewe 27th December 1588, in Acts of the Privy Council of England 1588. Official Publications 1897 Vol XVI
[4] Calendar of State Papers (Domestic) Elizabeth I, 1591-94, August 28th 1594
[5] Strong, loc.cit., p14
[6] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, citing House of Commons Journal
[7] In Public and Private, Elizabeth I and her world, Susan Watkins, London 1998

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