Elizabeth I's portraits: Image and power

  • Published 2 June 2016
James Hall
Art historian and critic

James Hall reflects on the personal and political narratives concealed within the portraits of Elizabeth I, arguably the first monarch to understand the importance of image as a means of projecting power.

To appreciate the unique erotic power and cultic importance of portraiture in the Elizabethan age we need only recall the casket scene in The Merchant of Venice (1598). Portia’s late father has devised a test for her suitors: to win his daughter’s hand they must open one of three caskets made, respectively, of gold, silver and lead. The contents will reveal which suitor has chosen wisely. Bassanio, whom Portia loves, opens the correct casket and finds inside a portrait of his beloved – so meticulous and sensuously alive that Bassanio is jealous of the ‘demi-god’ painter, and of his perceived tactile and visual intimacy with Portia during the sittings:

What find I here?
[opening the leaden casket]
Fair Portia’s counterfeit! What demi-god
Hath come so near creation? Move these eyes?
Or whether, riding on the balls of mine,
Seem they in motion? Here are sever’d lips,
Parted with sugar breath: so sweet a bar
Should sunder such sweet friends.
Here in her hairs
The painter plays the spider and hath woven
A golden mesh to entrap the hearts of men,
Faster than gnats in cobwebs; but her eyes –
How could he see to do them? Having made one,
Methinks it should have power to steal both his
And leave itself unfurnish’d.

Stylistically at least, Elizabethan painters did play the spider as they wove intricately patterned webs from the gorgeous hair, hands, lace, silk, jewellery and embroidery of the Queen and of her courtiers. Though the casket scene is set in Venice, home of Titian, Shakespeare is thinking of the oval miniature portraits by the Exeter-born Nicholas Hilliard (c1547-1619), the first artist anywhere to excel and specialise in this genre and the one who made miniature painting one of England’s singular contributions to European art.

Nicholas Hilliard, miniature of Queen Elizabeth I, 1572 © NPG Images

Nicholas Hilliard, miniature of Queen Elizabeth I, 1572


© NPG Images

They were painted in watercolour on lambskin vellum glued to card, using brushes made from the tail hair of Continental species of squirrel. Hilliard’s earliest surviving miniature of the Queen is dated 1572 and even the curlicues of the inscription seem to caress her flirtatiously. In 1584, a draft patent was drawn up giving Hilliard a monopoly over the production of miniature portraits of the monarch, and George Gower a monopoly over portraits ‘in large’. The patent was never granted, however, and was one of many unsuccessful attempts to control the production of royal portraits, the demand for which – both at home and abroad – was insatiable.

Profile portraits of rulers had appeared on coinage since antiquity, and were thus ubiquitous, but during the 16th century, the rise of absolute monarchies in France, Spain and England, as well as the availability of great portrait artists, led to an increase in production of ruler portraits. These would be circulated among courtiers, allies and devotees. Engravings reached an even wider audience. In a Protestant country such as England, where religious art was proscribed, portraits of the divinely favoured Tudor monarch took on a quasi-cultic role. Holbein’s terrifying full-length portrait of King Henry VIII in Whitehall was circulated in various sizes and formats, effectively mass-produced – with the last batch of four full-lengths being made very posthumously in the aftermath of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1613). Subjects demonstrated their loyalty by giving them pride of place in their Great Hall, Long Gallery or corporate headquarters.

The royal portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603; reigned from 1558) are uniquely fascinating because of her sex and celibate status, her religious and political circumstances, and the creative and emotional input of her courtiers and artists in their production. Nearly 200 variations on a few standard formats survive, and they convey a range of dynastic and political messages using costume and symbolic props – most notably in the Armada Portrait, one of three versions of which, the the Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich are campaigning to secure for the nation.

The Queen’s characteristic ‘look’ took a while to be formulated, however. The earliest surviving portraits, showing her dressed in black with an ermine-lined surcoat, are wooden hackwork and seem to have been the catalyst for a proclamation in 1563 calling for strict quality control over the production of royal images. In the following year, Catherine de’ Medici offered to send over her court painter from Paris, and Margaret of Parma complained about portraits of the Queen ‘in blacke with a hoode and a cornet’. She could have been anyone, and physically she was: the few accounts suggest she was rather nondescript.

Hilliard’s arrival on the scene marks a step change in quality and – in the Phoenix Portrait – imagery and fantasy. This is a half-length panel painting, with the pattern for the face transposed from the miniature. Reuse of patterns aided uniformity and mass production. In terms of shoulder breadth and bulk, she competes with Holbein’s image of her father, but her volume is built up not from solid velvet but from a cornucopia of jewels and embroidery; her white silk undershirt bulges bud-like through the slits in her embroidered dress. The size and even number of jewels is exaggerated, which led to envious comments in the French court when they saw a similar portrait. The whole confection is held together by a filigree rigging of golden thread and wire, and by the tiny pleats in her veil, which have a web-like delicacy. It is as intricate as a computer motherboard.

“Elizabeth I loved fashion and patronised dressmakers rather than architects, relying instead on the lavish hospitality of her courtiers. Her portraits created a mirage of plutocratic power.”

  • James Hall

The novelist Angela Carter believed such pictures signified ‘a walking fortune’, and we are clearly not meant to think that Elizabeth was poor, though by the standards of other European monarchs, she was: she increasingly relied on revenue from parliament, but this declined in value by 70 per cent during the course of her reign. She loved fashion and patronised dressmakers rather than architects, relying instead on the lavish hospitality of her courtiers. Her portraits created a mirage of plutocratic power.

The impassive face and emphatic costume recall the Medici court portraits of the Italian mannerist Bronzino, specifically that of the Grand Duchess Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni (1544-45) in the Uffizi in Florence. Direct comparisons could be made because by the 1590s a portrait of the Queen was displayed in the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence. But the differences are more striking than the similarities (not least, the presence of a son). Bronzino’s portrait seems much more restrained, even puritanical in its sombre colours and shadows; and the sitters are more distanced. In the Queen’s picture, the abundance, opulence and heraldic frontality of her costume verges on the hallucinogenic. There’s a tantalising sense that the Queen’s riches might burst their bounds and that we might touch them. Her long-fingered yet ringless hand (she was proud of her hands) holds a red Tudor rose over her heart, and is artfully displayed to us.

For sheer sublime excess, the only comparable royal portrait is Arcimboldo’s Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus (c1590), a Roman god of fertility. The emperor is entirely fashioned from flowers and fruits of all seasons. But Arcimboldo’s portrait was an amusing ‘one-off’, destined for a cabinet of curiosities.

The Queen’s portrait doesn’t only tell of the riches that might flow from her, as from an open-cast mine. It is named after the phoenix brooch, pinned to her breast just above her hand. According to legend, the phoenix was a unique creature that lived in the Arabian desert, burning itself to death every few hundred years, then rising again from the ashes, eternally youthful. Here it seems to refer to Elizabeth’s ability to reinvent herself and her nation continually without the need for a husband. She never allowed herself to age in her portraits, wearing what Roy Strong called a ‘Mask of Youth’. Michelangelo justified the impossibly youthful appearance of the Virgin in his Vatican Pietà by saying that ‘women who are chaste remain fresher than those who are not’, and the Phoenix Queen is no different. She was aided in this task by thick layers of lead-based make-up, and a total absence of shadow. Hilliard, in his treatise The Art of Limning (c1600), says he had to draw her in a ‘goodly garden, where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all’.

The Armada Portrait (c1588), based on Hilliard’s designs, is one of the most elaborate panel paintings and the only one in ‘landscape’ format. It was part of a massive propaganda campaign celebrating the victory, and three versions are known, of which this is said to be the ‘matrix’, the version on which the others were based. It may have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake, who circumnavigated the globe between 1577 and 1580, and played a leading role in the conflicts with Spain. The panel portrait shows scenes from the defeat of the Armada through two windows at the back, while the luxuriously upholstered Queen rests her right hand on a globe, touching the Americas – an indication of Drake’s and England’s imperialist ambitions. To her left is a carved figure of an (English) mermaid, whose siren-call lures (Spanish) sailors to their death. The sea-goddess theme is emphasised by the abundance of pearls decorating the Queen’s fashionable dress, and the eight massive pearl necklaces, draped like seaweed.

Nicholas Hilliard, Self-portrait aged 30, 1577 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Nicholas Hilliard, Self-portrait aged 30, 1577


© Victoria and Albert Museum

The exchange of miniature portraits was part of an elaborate game of courtly love played by the Virgin Queen and her supplicant ‘knight’ courtiers: they belonged in a world of masques and chivalric jousts. Early in her reign, the Queen kept her collection of miniatures – as we learn from the diplomatic correspondence of Mary Queen of Scots’ ambassador – in a little cabinet in her bed chamber, wrapped in paper on which she had written their names. ‘Upon the first she took up was written, “My lord’s picture”. I held the candle… and found it to be Lord Leicester’s picture.’ From the 1570s, miniatures were worn on the body like chivalric favours, to be regularly handled and glimpsed. When the philandering King Henri IV of France was shown a miniature portrait of the Queen by Sir Henry Upton in Paris to prove she was more beautiful than his many mistresses, ‘he beheld it with Passion and Admiration’, then ‘kissed it twice or thrice, I detaining it still in my Hand’. In the end, as Upton reported back to the delighted Queen, he reluctantly ceded it to the King. This was during the last decade of the Queen’s reign, when she was in her sixties.

No one was more versed in love lore than Hilliard, and it partly accounts for the intensity of his portraits. In his treatise on art, he claimed the English are more beautiful than any other nation, ‘even the hand and foot’; Anglia is a country of angels. If the artist wants to depict their expressions and emotions he must not only be an ‘amorous’ gentleman wise in affairs of the heart; he must also scrutinise his sitters so deeply that he falls in love with them. How, Hilliard asks, can the ‘curious drawer watch, and as it were catch those lovely graces, witty smilings, and those stolen glances’ without ‘blasting his young and simple heart’. This man of feeling is not only seen in Hilliard’s exquisitely sexy Self-Portrait (1577), but in the incomparable A Young Man Leaning Against a Tree Amongst Roses (1585-95). He wears the Queen’s colours and the Latin inscription says, ‘My praised faith brings sufferings’. It is often said to be the Earl of Essex, but it is also Hilliard, the spider painter, lovestruck in the Queen’s garden, striving to keep the shadows away.

Donate to help bring the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I to the Royal Museums Greenwich collection. All donations will be matched pound for pound. Find out more.

James Hall is the author of The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History (Thames & Hudson) and The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art (Oxford University Press).

This article appears in Art Quarterly's summer 2016 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass.

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