Armada Portrait returns to Greenwich after conservation

The iconic painting of Elizabeth I is returning to the Queen’s House at Greenwich after extensive conservation treatment.

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I is returning to the Queen’s House at Greenwich after more than six months of restoration treatment. The portrait is one of the earliest examples of large-scale work in oils by any English painter, with a connection to the two most important native-born artists of the age, George Gower and Nicholas Hilliard.

Some 425 years after it was painted in the early 1590s – and as the result of a major public appeal that raised £10.3 million, including £7.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) – the Armada Portrait finally entered public ownership in 2016, in the care of Royal Museums Greenwich. The HLF grant followed on from the public appeal mounted in association with Art Fund, which attracted 8,000 individual donations amounting to £1.5 million, as well as other major grants.

After brief initial display in the Queen’s House last autumn, the painting has now undergone a period of complex and comprehensive conservation. This painstaking work was expertly undertaken by Elizabeth Hamilton-Eddy, who is Senior Paintings Conservator at Royal Museums Greenwich, with over 40 years’ experience in the field including on panel works of this kind. The portrait goes back on display on Friday 13 October.

The long conservation treatment removed several layers of old varnish and retouchings, more fully revealing the painting’s intricate detail and vibrant colours. Specialist technical analysis has also provided important new information about the two background seascapes framing the figure of the Queen, and confirmed that they were repainted in the early 18th century.

Dr Kevin Fewster, Director of Royal Museums Greenwich, says: ‘Thanks to this magnificent conservation treatment visitors will now be able to appreciate this remarkable painting in much the same way it would have been seen by Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers.’

Stephen Deuchar, Director, Art Fund, says: ‘Thanks to the several thousand people who donated to our appeal to acquire this iconic portrait, we are today celebrating its new display in the galleries of the Queen’s House. Its painstaking restoration in the hands of the expert team at Royal Museums Greenwich has been transformative, breathing new life into its rich iconography and meaning.’

The portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), the Spanish Armada’s failed attempt to invade England in August 1588. It is also a work of which the national significance transcends that specific event, given that scholars have sometimes called it a definitive representation of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the whole Elizabethan era, often styled ‘The Golden Age’. Since at least the early 20th century the portrait has also inspired and informed countless portrayals of Elizabeth I on stage, in film and television, and been instrumental in making her one of the most recognisable historical figures for audiences today.

The film below features an interview with lead conservator Elizabeth Hamilton-Eddy and follows the final touches of the restoration. You can also watch the journey of the whole conservation in this series of videos from Royal Museums Greenwich.

The Armada Portrait was acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund, Linbury Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, Headley Trust and other major donors, together with contributions from over 8,000 members of the public as part of a joint public appeal with Art Fund. The HLF grant is also funding a three-year programme of national outreach, exploring the painting’s broad historical and cultural context.

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