A beige, brown and white guinea pig, cradled by a child in what may have been a symbol of the enduring popularity of the exotic pet in 16th century Europe, has been suggested by curators at the National Portrait Gallery as the first portrait of the animal.
Three unknown children aged five, six and seven are shown surrounding the guinea pig, likely to have been introduced from South America by Spanish traders.
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It is the latest discovery during preparations for an exhibition, Elizabeth I and Her People, which is full of horses, stags, dogs and, among its more unusual portraits, a falcon, an elephant on a crest and rings and purses depicting grasshoppers and frogs.
The expensive, fashionable clothing of the sitters in the guinea pig painting – the youngest of whom holds a small bird – suggests a family of the nobility or gentry, with the skillful brushwork suggesting an artist of Netherlandish techniques.
Other animal-accompanying portraits in the exhibition include the Queen and an ermine, William Cecil, Lord Burghley atop a mule and the recently-discovered Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses – a postcard-sized Isaac Oliver work featuring a peacock.
- Elizabeth I and Her People opens at the National Portrait Gallery on October 10 2013.