Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), c.1600 

16th Century English School 

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), c.1600, 16th Century English School
Oil on panel (Baltic oak)
16th Century
22 ¾ x 17 ¼ in, (57.8 x 43.8cm)
Reputedly presented to George Sinclair, 5th Earl of Caithness (1566-1642/3) by Queen Elizabeth I; Audrey Baird (1887-1952) (according to a label on the reverse); Private collection, Scotland.
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Although Elizabeth’s face is one of the most recognisable and widely-known within the iconography of past English rulers, it is also one of the most misleading and more often than not we see the Virgin Queen not as she was, but how she wanted to be. Dendrochronological analysis (tree-ring dating) of the oak panel support suggests this work was likely painted towards the end of her reign in c.1600, and is thus a rare and revealing example of a portrait showing Elizabeth in old age.

As the daughter of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth would have witnessed first-hand at a young age the importance of portraiture for marketing the monarchy; her father’s full-frontal portrait by Hans Holbein, for example, painted c.1537 when Elizabeth was still an infant, was one of the most successful power-portraits of the period and was copied endlessly in the following decades by supporters of the house of Tudor. Elizabeth would also have seen her father’s determination to disseminate images of her younger brother Edward (later King Edward VI) in anticipation of his succession, and would similarly have witnessed the destruction of her sister Mary’s portraits following her demise and the religious settlement that followed.

Knowing its use as an object of veneration or hatred, portraiture was used by Elizabeth with caution, and its dispersal was monitored with great care and attention to detail. Elizabeth’s early portraits painted not long after her coronation in 1558, show a lady of great modesty and restraint - a conscious attempt no doubt to reassure her subjects nervous of another upheaval like the one experienced in the reign of her sister Mary I. As Elizabeth’s reign progressed and the empire developed, she once again turned to portraiture to outwardly declare her supremacy and power, and one of the most celebrated images of ‘Gloriana’ is undoubtedly the ‘Armada’ portrait, in which Elizabeth is shown with her hand resting on a globe in a symbolic act of ownership. As Elizabeth grew older the question of succession naturally arose, and with no immediate heir to take the throne it was vital that Elizabeth maintained her appearance as a young and energetic leader. Fighting against the natural course of time, therefore, Elizabeth and her Privy Council tried desperately to enforce a ‘mask of youth’ on the production of her likeness, and in July 1596 ordered that no more offending portraits were to be produced and that those in existence were to be destroyed.(1) Needless to say, this was an impossible task, and try as they might the Privy Council were unable to halt entirely the distribution of the ‘ageless’ monarch’s actual likeness.

This portrait is one of these later, more candid depictions of Elizabeth and derives from a half-length portrait formally in the collection of Lord Brocket, which Sir Roy Strong dates to c.1590-1600. Strong lists two other derivations of the Brocket-type, one in St. John’s College, Cambridge and the other in a private collection in Scotland. Both of these variants closely follow the face-pattern of the Brocket portrait and given the similarities in handling and design, it is reasonable to suggest that they were both produced in the same workshop. The present work however shows distinct stylistic differences compared to the other acknowledged ‘Brocket-type’ portraits, most clearly visible in the preparatory under-drawing of the face, which shows a clear intent to show Elizabeth’s facial features in an unforgiving manner. When exposed to infrared light this under-drawing becomes easier to assess and one immediately notices how the artist took care to accentuate the areas beneath Elizabeth’s eyes – a clear sign of the aging process, and also emphasised the lines of her cheekbone and temple. It is known that the original Brocket portrait was re-worked in the face to give Elizabeth a more youthful appearance – presumably following the intervention of the Privy Council in 1596, so it is possible that there was once in circulation an original, un-edited face-pattern from which this work derives.

Great attention has been given in this portrait to the depiction of jewels, with the main focal point being the large heart-shaped pendant that hangs from pearls around the neck. Although it has yet to be established whether this particular jewel ever existed, we can instantly identify the large black diamond worn above the forehead as the Mirror of Portugal, which was acquired by the Queen from the Portuguese Crown Jewels and later sold by Charles I during the English Civil War.

R. Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, (Oxford, 1963), p.5.
R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, (London, 1969), vol.1, p.111.
Details of the re-working can be found in the catalogue note that accompanied the Brocket portrait when sold at auction by Sotheby’s on 10th July 1996, lot 15.
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