History of Queen Elizabeth’s Portraits


Between the late 1540s and 1603, roughly 135 portraits survive of Queen Elizabeth. At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth’s portraits were in high demand. With the Queen’s popularity so high a proclamation of 1563 was created – the proclamation looked to regulate the production of Elizabeth’s likeness, doing so by have Her majesty approve one portrait to be used as a pattern for future paintings.

In 1588, after Elizabeth’s excommunication, there was a huge demand from her subjects to display her image as an act of patriotism. So many pieces were created that the quality had declined.

Eight years later, in 1596, Elizabeth’s Privy Council ordered the destruction of the poor quality portraits because Elizabeth did not like the image they portrayed of her. The ones that werecollected were burned.

One of the portraits that survived burning is one that we are all very aware of today – the Armada Portrait by George Gower. Gower was one of the most successful portrait painters during her reign. In 1581 he was appointed as her serjeant-painter. As recently as 2014 some have stated that they do not believe Gower created the Armada Portrait.

Another portrait that survived was the 1585 Ermine Portrait, thought to be by miniature artist, Nicholas Hilliard and was commissioned by Lord Burghley.

The Ermine Portrait, William Segar, 1585

The Sieve Portrait from the early 1580s also survived burning. The largest surviving portrait from this time period was the Ditchley Portrait which was made about 1600 and Elizabeth was about 67 years old. Even though she was old looking at the time, the portrait shows her with a youthful face.

The Siena Sieve Portrait, Metsys the Younger, 1583

The first Sieve Portrait was painted by George Gower in 1579, but the most influential image is the 1583 version by Quentin Metsys (or Massys) the Younger. In the Metsys version, Elizabeth is surrounded by symbols of empire, including a column and a globe, iconography that would appear again and again in her portraiture of the 1580s and 1590s.

Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, oil on canvas, circa 1592

Known as the ‘Ditchley Portrait’, this painting was produced for Sir Henry Lee who had been the Queen’s Champion from 1559-90. It probably commemorates an elaborate symbolic entertainment which Lee organised for the Queen in September 1592, and which may have been held in the grounds of Lee’s house at Ditchley, near Oxford, or at the nearby palace at Woodstock.. After his retirement in 1590 Lee lived at Ditchley with his mistress Anne Vavasour. The entertainment marked the Queen’s forgiveness of Lee for becoming a ‘stranger lady’s thrall’. The portrait shows Elizabeth standing on the globe of the world, with her feet on Oxfordshire. The stormy sky, the clouds parting to reveal sunshine, and the inscriptions on the painting, make it plain that the portrait’s symbolic theme is forgiveness. The three fragmentary Latin inscriptions can be interpreted as: (left) ‘She gives and does not expect’; (right) ‘She can but does not take revenge’, and (bottom right) ‘In giving back she increases (?)’. The sonnet (right), perhaps composed by Lee, though fragmentary, can mostly be reconstructed. Its subject is the sun, symbol of the monarch. -NPG 2561

Further Reading:

Pomeroy, Elizabeth W. Reading the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I.

Strong, Roy. Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I.

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