Elizabeth I and her People shows Queen and country at the National Portrait Gallery

By Sarah Jackson | 11 October 2013

Exhibition review: Elizabeth I and her People, National Portrait Gallery, London, until January 5 2014

An image of a painting of a Tudor queen in full royal attire
Queen Elizabeth I, The Ermine Portrait. Attributed to Nicholas Hilliard (1585)© The Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House
Before the entrance to Elizabeth I & Her People hangs a holographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (Equanimity, by Chris Levine and Rob Munday). Unlike the portraits of her namesake, this portrait compels because of its medium, not its royal subject.

Seeing the Queen’s image is nothing new – we need only peek into our purses to find her likeness staring grimly to the left. In that regard, we are not so different to the Elizabethans, who also carried miniature portraits of their monarch on coins.

An image of a painting of a young woman in an elaborate dress in a dressing room
Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton. Unknown English artist (circa 1598)© The Buccleuch Collection, Boughton House
However, whereas a lifetime of being photographed has made the current Queen’s image so recognisable to many, Elizabeth I had far greater control of her image. Thus, she can appear as a young woman in a processional portrait depicting an event that took place at the end of her reign, or be depicted at the mythological Judgment of Paris, accepting the golden orb for herself and throwing out the Greek goddesses who argued over which of them should possess it.

That, of course, is the power of portraiture – painting an exact likeness isn’t quite the point. Dr Tarnya Cooper, the curator of this show, notes that English Elizabethan artists cared much less for realistic perspective than they did for decoration.

The best example of this is a portrait of William Cecil, the 1st Baron Burghley who was Elizabeth’s right-hand man for most of her reign. He is depicted riding a mule, which he apparently did for relaxation.

The perspective is all wrong – Cecil looks flat and barely seems to be in contact with the mule at all. However, a closer look reveals that the beauty of the painting comes from its details: the garden, mule and Cecil’s robes themselves are sumptuous and rich with detail.

It’s not a realistic portrait of a man on a mule. But as a symbol of Cecil, of his personality, power and Christian devotion (mules are also considered symbols of Christian humility), it does the job perfectly.

There is a danger in viewing Elizabethan portraiture: because of the flat perspectives and stiff postures, they can all begin to look similar, not helped by the fact that many portraits were based on previous portraits rather than real life sittings – the so-called Darnley portrait is thought to have been painted from life, then used extensively as the base of other images of the monarch.

The personalities of the sitters do not come from their faces. Their clothes and symbols, included in the frame alongside them, provide that. Sometimes they are incorporated fully into the painting, such as the Ermine portrait of Elizabeth II, in which she holds an ermine – a symbol of purity – or the skulls that many of the merchant class sitters place their hands on to symbolise their piety and hope for salvation.

An image of a painting of a Tudor queen in royal gown
Queen Elizabeth I, as seen by an unknown Netherlandish artist© National Portrait Gallery, London
Others simply float in the portrait, such as the newly-discovered image of a crescent moon over sea waves in a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh signifying his devotion to the Queen.

Some portraits do stand out – strikingly, they are often of children and women. A portrait of a vulnerable looking boy, commonly identified as John Dunch, is particularly moving, as he did not live to see his second birthday.

The portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton is extremely unusual, showing her dressing or undressing in private chambers. It says much about the elaborateness of Elizabethan costume that, even in this state of undress, she still wears pearl jewellery and floor-length bedclothes embroidered with a bright pattern of flowers and insects.

Most interesting for costume historians in this image is the presence of a dressing table, complete with all the accompaniments an Elizabethan lady would need in her boudoir (chiefly large quantities of pins, in case you were wondering).

Opposite this portrait is a display of real objects seen on both male and female dressers. It’s the presence of these objects that suddenly make the sitters in the portraits seem more real.

Most of the exhibition concerns royalty, nobility, and members of the new ‘middling classes’ such as the pleasingly-named butcher, Gamaliel Pye, explorer Francis Drake and the poet John Donne. However, a small corner is devoted to working people and the poor.

There are no portraits here; just small, plain items such as a tiny child’s mitten and the clothes worn by a man working a sea. They are plain and baggy, heavy duty and stained with tar; unlike the shaped waistcoat of a middle-class woman displayed nearby, they are exceptionally baggy to allow the wearer a full range of movement.

As I step out and back into the contemporary galleries, I find myself wondering about the unknown and forgotten poor. Cooper claims that the Elizabethan period marked the beginning of the idea of meritocracy – that skill mattered more than ancestry.

This can be seen in a self-portrait of the Queen’s Serjeant Painter George Gower, which features a set of scales tipped in favour of a drawing compass rather than acoat of-arms – a message, Cooper claims, that he cares more about his skill than his birthright. It seems doubtful, however, that he could have risen so high without his birthright.

Elizabeth I and Her People does not claim to portray anybody but the nobility, gentry and newly-emerging classes, but the presence of a few paltry items belonging to the poor reminds us that portraiture tends to depict the 1%, not the 99%.

Elizabethan England may represent the start of some social mobility, but portraiture is still very much a medium for the wealthy.

  • Open 10am-5pm (8pm Thursday and Friday, closed December 24-26). Admission £10.40-£13.50 (free for under-12s, family ticket £17-£27). Book online.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More pictures:

An image of a painting of a Tudor man in a black gown carrying a small child
A Child and his Nurse, English artist (circa 1580s / early 1590s)© Private collection
An image of a Tudor painting of a woman in a white gown walking through a garden
Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabeth I and the Three Graces), attributed to Isaac Oliver (circa 1590)© National Portrait Gallery, London
An image of a painting of a nobleman in a gown riding a horse through the country
William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, portrayed by an unknown artist (1520/21-1598)© The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
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