Chloe-Jane Good takes a look at the immaculately-restored 'Armada Portrait' of Queen Elizabeth I, on display at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London.
Queen Elizabeth I’s iconic ‘Armada Portrait’ painted in the early 1590s commemorates England’s glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada 430 years ago in 1588.
Until two years ago, the painting was privately owned by descendants of Sir Francis Drake since at least 1775. Now this historical painting belongs to the National Maritime Museum and is on public display in the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London.
It is a homecoming of sorts as Elizabeth I was born in the same grounds in the Palace of Placentia where the Old Royal Naval College stands today. Shortly after the acquisition in 2016, National Maritime Museum carried out major restoration of the painting including careful removal of layers of yellowed varnish revealing renewed clarity and a paleness of skin associated with the queen.
The painting depicts Elizabeth in regal dress bathed in symbols of authority, imperial power, purity and divinity. In the background she is flanked by two maritime scenes; to her right where her body turns, the English fleet engages the Armada upon calm waters and to her left a raging storm shipwrecks the Spanish fleet off the coast of Ireland.
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There are two other known versions of the Armada Portrait; one is in the Woburn Collection in Bedfordshire and the other is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Interestingly, the ships of the Woburn version are of the period of the Spanish Armada but those in the other two versions belong to the 17th Century. However, sophisticated X-ray scans have revealed that 16th Century ships, almost identical to those in the Woburn painting, have been overpainted in the Queen’s House version we see today.
Following on from the tumultuous reign of her father, Henry VIII, defined by impetuousness, excessiveness, an unresolved Reformation and ineffectiveness abroad, Elizabeth’s reign was welcomed for its consistency, purposefulness, moderation and the extension of influence overseas.
“Her gaze that goes beyond the viewer is majestic, magisterial, reserved, self-assured and ambitious”
It is not surprising that Elizabeth never married, given her father’s ruthless treatment of his many wives. Henry VIII had Elizabeth’s own mother beheaded so that he could marry another. He then disowned Elizabeth proclaiming her illegitimate. She was just a small child at the time.
Elizabeth I’s lifelong celibacy gave her power and control. She was the ‘Virgin Queen’ untouchable. In this portrait her costume is impenetrable, laced with tied ribbons, pearls and gold.
A large pearl and bow are at her groin perfectly centred. Pearls were a well-known symbol of female virginity in the Renaissance era and of course they originate from the sea where this great victory over the Spanish occurred.
We think of the iconic portrait of Henry VIII in the wall mural commissioned by the king himself and painted by Hans Holbein. Here Henry VIII stands astride with his gut and codpiece projected towards his audience. In the Armada Portrait Elizabeth’s pale skin, seated open posture, measured distance to the foreground with table set between and her gaze that goes beyond the viewer is majestic, magisterial, reserved, self-assured and ambitious.
Her doll-like hand rests on a globe at the New World, signalling her imperial hold and alluding to Christian icons depicting the Virgin Mary atop the earth.
The Queen’s House Gallery is part of the the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – admission free. www.rmg.co.uk/armada
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