Historical Portraits Picture Archive

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

George Gower, Manner of c.1540 - 1596

Portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), The Armada Portrait, c.1600, George Gower, Manner of
Oil on canvas
16th Century
39 x 38 in. (101 x 97.8 cm.)
By tradition, given by Charles I to Judge Twisden, of Royden Hall, Bradbourne, Kent; Possibly, Christies, London, 19th April 1830, “Queen Elizabeth, in a rich dress, with a feather fan, half length”, as Zucchero, from Leeds Castle, Kent, Capt. White; William Frederick Woolley, Pryor’s Banks; Christies London, 11th May 1894, lot 72, 105 guineas to Charles Butler; Charles H A Butler (1822-19190), Warren Wood, Hatfield; Thence by descent; Christies, London, 22nd November 2006, Lot 9.
R Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (Oxford 1963) p.75, no.69 R Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, National Portrait Gallery (London 1969) p.111
London, 19012, New Gallery, ‘The Monarchs of Great Britain and Ireland’, as Zucchero; University of Michigan Museum of Art, and Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College; ‘Women who Ruled: Queens, Goddesses and Amazons, 1500-1650, 2002, no.63
To view portraits of Elizabeth I for sale, please visit the Tudor and Stuart portraits at Philip Mould.

Elizabeth I understood the power of portraiture better than almost any other English monarch. Like all the Tudors, she knew well the value of making her subjects aware of her identity. Her grandfather, Henry VII, was the first monarch to put his own accurate portrait on the English coinage, while her father, Henry VIII, seized on Holbein’s ability to present himself as a strong and majestic ruler in numerous official portraits. So Elizabeth too mobilised her own image, emboldened and reinforced with expensive costumes and sumptuous jewels, as a symbol of royal authority. Above all, such portraits were a demonstration that, despite being a woman, Elizabeth was the natural and legitimate ruler of England.

The flamboyant image of Elizabeth seen here has become one of the most successful sovereign statements in English history. The contrast with Elizabeth’s earlier portraiture is striking. In the first portrait of her as Queen, the ‘Clopton’ portrait of 1558 [Private Collection, formerly Philip Mould Ltd], Elizabeth is shown with conspicuous piety. She wears a relatively simple black dress, and holds a religious book in her hand. This portrayal accords well with what we know to be Elizabeth’s virtuous, even frugal youthful character.

But as her reign progressed Elizabeth’s portraiture became increasingly outré. Each portrait outdid the last with ever more elaborate changes in costume, pose, composition and jewelry, a progression matched by Elizabeth’s increasing addiction to expensive jewels. The process culminates in the over-indulgent, oversized, almost absurd example of the ‘Ditchley’ portrait [National Portrait Gallery], in which Elizabeth is shown full length, bestriding the earth, as bolts of lighting strike dramatically through the sky behind her. Her face is small, aged, even ugly, and overwhelmed by the rest of the painting. Elizabeth the person is subsumed by Elizabeth the icon.

And this was precisely the intention. They key to understanding Elizabeth’s portraiture lies in a recognition of her political vulnerability. Female monarchs in the sixteenth century were rare enough. Unmarried female monarchs were unheard of. Her image, therefore, could not stress traditional female charms; beauty, grace, fertility. In fact, it had to stress the opposite. From the late 1570s onwards, when it became clear that she would not marry, Elizabeth was effectively de-sexed. She was portrayed as a virtuous emblem of state, the Virgin Queen forsaking marriage for the good of the kingdom. It was therefore not enough for Elizabeth to rely on likeness alone in her portraiture. She certainly could not be portrayed in the demur, usually seated, manner of her sister Mary, supported as she was by her marriage to Philip of Spain. And, of course, Elizabeth was unable to rely on sheer physical presence in her portraits, as her father done. Thus her portraits came to rely on bejewelled and bulky costumes – ‘Gloriana’ – for the projection of majesty.

This portrait is one of the best known images of the Queen. Commonly called the ‘Armada’ type, it is one of four versions, most likely painted in the late 1580s and early 1590s. The three related pictures are at; Woburn Abbey, the National Portrait Gallery, and in the possession of the descendants of Sir Francis Drake. They celebrate the apogaic defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1588 by the inclusion of a naval battle in the background.

What is considered the ‘prime’ Armada type, that at Woburn, has been attributed to George Gower. Gower produced a large number of portraits of Elizabeth in his capacity as the Queen’s Serjeant painter, and thus would have had an extensive workshop to help meet the high demand. This portrait was most probably painted by an artist familiar with his practices.

The production of Elizabeth’s portraits followed well established practices. A standardized face ‘mask’ was used, as has been the case in this example. Face masks not only saved time, but made up for the impossibility of painting the Queen from life for each new commission. Masks were also used to adhere to the fairly stringent, if unofficial, rules surrounding the production of the Queen’s image. She preferred, for example, to have no shadows across her face, and hence the stark, bright appearance of her features. The pose and costume would then have been painted with greater artistic freedom. Subtle changes would have been introduced in each portrait, usually in the accessories such as the fan in this example, so that the dependence on standard facial types did not give rise to identical portraits of the Queen. It appears to have been accepted that no two portraits of the Queen should be identical.

There has been some debate about the precise date of this portrait. When recently sold at Christies, London, it was dated to between1600 and1620, principally due to the use of canvas. However, it is possible that the portrait can be dated to within Elizabeth’s lifetime. An imposition of a terminus post quem of 1600 on the present portrait, simply because canvas was most commonly a seventeenth century medium, is unjustified.

Although canvas is thought to have been introduced mainly at the turn of the seventeenth century, there are many examples of canvas portraits in the sixteenth century, particularly for larger works where the use of oak might have been prohibitively expensive. In Europe canvas was used throughout the sixteenth century, while in England it can be found in early Tudor royal portraits, such as the group of Henry VIII and his family [Royal Collection] and a portrait of Edward VI [Lord Egremont]. There are also examples of contemporary portraits of Elizabeth on canvas, such as; Quentin Metsys the Younger’s ‘Sieve’ portrait of 1583, Marcus Gheeraerdts’ ‘Ditchley’ portrait of c.1592 [NPG]; John Bettes the Younger’s portrait of c.1590 [on loan to Pollok House, Glasgow]; and the anonymous ‘Elizabeth I with a Crescent-moon Jewel’ [Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury]. Significantly, two portraits that use the same face-mask as the Armada present portrait are also on canvas, one dated c.1590 at Toledo Museum of Art, and another, a full-length, also c.1590, at Trinity College Cambridge [check]. The present work is painted on a particularly coarse weave, as seen in very early English canvas paintings.

If the present work was painted after Elizabeth’s death, then it must have been a copied from an earlier work, namely, one of the other three Armada versions. What is evident from even the cursory comparison of the facial features however, is that the sensitive modelling and cadaverous characterisation are both manifestly early in handling and of notable high quality, particularly when set aside other versions. It would seem untenable that this could have been completed by any artist who did not have experience of contemporaneous workshop practices. Paint analysis has confirmed a possible date from the late sixteenth century, and reveals the use of azurite, a pigment regularly used in the sixteenth century. And, finally, and indicatively there are numerous differences between the present painting and the other three Armada types.

The most obvious difference is the lack of an Armada scene. It would make little sense for a posthumous copy of an Armada portrait not to include any reference to the greatest event of her reign, particularly when such a copy must have been commissioned with a degree of retrospective gloire. For all its later acclaim, the Armada portrait type was in fact a relatively short lived phenomenon. It seems improbable that an artist charged with making a copy in James I’s reign would chose a work of relative rarity, and which cannot by then have been easily accessible.

There are also significant differences in the jewelry between the present painting and the three other versions. In the present work the Queen wears a double chain of pearls across her bodice. A similar arrangement can be seen in Gower type portraits of the 1580s, the ‘Darnley’ portrait c.1575, Marcus Gheerearts the Elder’s c.1585 full length, and most strikingly in Quentin Metys the Younger’s ‘Sieve’ portrait of 1583. However, in the other three Armada portraits the Queen is shown wearing a far larger arrangement of pearls. These were almost certainly those bequeathed by the Earl of Leicester to Elizabeth, his “most dear and gracious Sovereign whose creature under God I have been”, in 1588. Elizabeth, who locked herself in her room on hearing Leicester’s demise, is shown wearing this gift in most of her later portraits. It would be extremely unusual for an artist to copy an Armada portrait, and then, in addition to making numerous changes in the pose and costume, revert to a formula of jewelry used before 1588.

Similarly, in the present portrait Elizabeth is shown holding a distinctive jewel of a large diamond, flanked by two figures, with a large pendant pearl. This same jewel can be seen clearly in the Metsys’ sieve portrait. It makes further appearances, in a more generalized form, in only a handful of portraits dated to the 1580s, such as that attributed by Roy Strong to John Bettes the Younger [Private Collection, Gloriana p.118, and in the little-known portrait of Elizabeth seated on a throne [Lord Tollemache]. It does not appear in portraits of the Queen post 1590. Its presence in the present portrait could be explained by an artist conversant in Elizabethan iconography and fashion – and that means a contemporary workshop.

We must also consider the likely circumstances in which the portrait would have been commissioned. Royal portraits of this size and scale were usually commissioned as a means of displaying loyalty to the regime, perhaps by a leading courtier, nobleman, or gentry family. In this context a late copy of Elizabeth on the scale and quality seen here would have had no political value in the reign of the new Stuart king, James I. Posthumous copies of Elizabeth tend to be confined to smaller corridor portraits, or include obvious references to her age and death, such as the example at Corsham Court, in which a weary Queen is overshadowed by the figure of Death.

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