National Portrait Gallery researchers reveal 'airbrushed' Elizabeth I in X-ray of portrait

By Richard Moss | 11 September 2014

The National Portrait Gallery has been X-raying its Tudor portraits to come up with some intriguing finds beneath the layers of paint

a composite picture showing two images of Elizabeth side by side; the left showing an x-ray of the original
Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist, early 17th century with 18th century overpainting© National Portrait Gallery, London
Curators and conservators have become accustomed to discovering the amazing secrets that sometimes lie beneath the layers of paint of our most famous paintings, and at the National Portrait Gallery the latest glimpses between oil and canvas do not disappoint.

Researchers working on the NPG’s new exhibition of Tudor Portraiture have discovered hidden portraits and even a dead insect lurking beneath iconic portraits of the Tudor monarchs.

Among the revelations revealed in The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered (12 Sept 2014-1 Mar 2015) are a hidden portrait of Elizabeth I which was overpainted in the eighteenth century and a bug trapped in varnish in a portrait of the young Edward VI.

The original portrait of Elizabeth I, revealed by X-radiography, shows an elderly Elizabeth wearing an elaborate costume with large ‘wings’ around her head. This 'warts and all' depiction was almost completely overpainted in the eighteenth century to create the younger ‘prettified’ image we see today.

Further insights have come from tree-ring dating of the portrait, which has revealed how its wooden panel was made from a tree felled after 1604, just after Elizabeth’s death.

Meanwhile, researchers undertaking technical analysis of the gallery’s portrait of the young Edward VI discovered not another painting, but a beetle (thought to be a fungus or a plaster beetle).

It is thought the unfortunate creature made an appearance during a varnishing treatment, again possibly in the eighteenth century prior to the gallery’s acquisition of the painting, and then became entombed for centuries in the thick coating.

The varnish has now been removed as part of the conservation treatment and the portrait can be seen afresh showing details, not easily identifiable previously, such as the boy king’s pale eyes and individual hairs, and the delicate pinks of his collar and flesh tones.

Research on another portrait of Elizabeth I, the ‘Phoenix’ portrait, associated with the artist Nicholas Hilliard, has shown that the position of the face was moved during the painting process, and a second set of features can be seen faintly beneath the surface.

The discoveries feature in the new exhibition, which also displays some stunning treasures from the Tudor period including a chance to see a rarely-loaned painted plaster and wood bust, once part of a life-size effigy of Henry VII, attributed to the renaissance master Pietro Torrigiano, and made for the king’s funeral procession.

The life-like quality of the head is quite unlike previous portrait sculpture made in England as it was modelled in plaster from the dead king’s face. The image is said to provide the most realistic surviving portrait of the first Tudor king. Italian artist Torrigiano used the death mask again when he cast Henry’s figure in gilt bronze for the king’s tomb.

The gallery’s oldest portrait, that of Henry VII, also makes an appearance together with a Book of Hours inscribed by the king to his daughter and no fewer than six portraits of Henry VIII together with his rosary on loan from Chatsworth.

Portraits of Edward VI are accompanied by a page from his diary in which he reports his father’s death and five portraits of Mary I are combined with her Prayer Book loaned from Westminster Cathedral.

Among the several portraits of Elizabeth I is displayed her locket ring, a rare loan from Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.

Click below to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition.

The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, Rooms 1-3, National Portrait Gallery, London,  September  122014 – March 1 2015 Admission Free.

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