Would the Real Queen Elizabeth Please Stand Up

Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603) carefully controlled her image and the depictions of it. Many of the portraits that immortalise England’s Good Queen Bess, from Nicholas Hilliard’s ‘Pelican Portrait’ of c.1574 to the ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of c.1602, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, depict the ruler with an almost androgynous, whitened face that is ageless, and virtually identical. This was the point. Elizabeth sought to defy time and the effects of aging in much the same way that she defied contemporary expectations of her sex to rule without major political opposition for almost forty-five years. Painters seem to have adhered to what amounted to a ‘stock’ representation of the Queen.

The perfect, poised and poisoning mask that proclaimed Elizabeth’s determination and physical capability to rule was enhanced by allegorical symbols that were embroidered on her costly garments or held in her hand, from snakes that symbolised wisdom to sieves that represented innocence. The recent discovery by Philip Mould of a three-quarter length portrait that appears to depict Elizabeth as physically awkward and psychologically hesitant monarch is therefore big news. Here, potentially, is an image of the Queen that did not conform to the now-familar archetype and yet managed to escape detection, and destruction, during her lifetime.

The newly discovered portrait of ?Queen Elizabeth I from c.1559

The newly discovered portrait of ?Elizabeth I, c.1559

The Awkward Elizabeth that confronts us in Mould’s portrait is said to date from 1559, when she was twenty-six years old, and in the first full year of her reign. The evidence that has been used to establish this date has not been shared widely, but my initial response is that this is almost certainly too late, chiefly because of the style of the Queen’s clothing. The Awkward Elizabeth may be arrayed in gold and fur, but her garments would have been unfashionable in the second half of the sixteenth century when she started to rule.

Awkward Elizabeth appears to be wearing a full-length gown of a gold cloth beneath a black fur mantle. The golden gown is decorated with floriate patterns contained within horizontal bands. These bands continue unbroken beneath the Queen’s left hand, which is positioned over her waist, and suggest there is no separate bodice and skirt. The glimpse of a slim black belt, hanging around the waist from left to right, enhances this impression. This is odd. By the middle of the sixteenth century the kirtle (or skirt) tended to be a separate garment; a bodice was worn above it, over the torso. Moreover, from the c.1540s the proportions of this skirt had increased, due to the farthingale worn underneath. These developments in women’s dress are shown in a portrait of a highly fashionable Princess Elizabeth of c.1546 that is attributed to William Scrots (below). Whilst there is some indication of Awkward Elizabeth’s hips, her skirt seems to have no form of stiffening or  shaping structure beneath it. This scenario would be highly unlikely for a lady of status and fashion in the sixteenth century, and not least for Queen Elizabeth whose accounts indicate she was wearing farthingales during the early sixteenth century.


Princess Elizabeth, c.1546, atr. William Scrots (Royal Collection)

If the length of the gown and the silhouette of the skirt raises questions about the date of this portrait, the neckline does, too. By the middle of the sixteenth century it was fashionable for women of status to emphasise their décolletage. The neck of Awkward Elizabeth is entirely hidden. The Queen’s neck that is not covered by the golden gown is concealed beneath a smock with black work. The ruff, which is secured by a chin strap, covers more of the Queen’s face and neck; it is also dissimilar to fashionable styles at the commencement of Elizabeth’s reign.

This all noted, there are some nods to contemporary vogues: the whitened skin and black work on the linen smock – a style of embroidery largely attributed to Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon – does suggest the artist was cognisant of at least some sixteenth-century status-defining fashions.

What are the implications of all of this?

First, we have to acknowledge the limitations of our artist. We are presented with a two-dimensional figure – a Tudor cardboard cut-out – whose clothing, though clearly expensive and of high status, appears similarly flat and devoid of texture. The drape of fabric over the shoulders and elbows has clearly caused problems and looks particularly clumsy. The implication of this is that the artist was working several tiers below that of the artists typically commissioned to immortalise England’s royalty at this time. This would suggest the painter was operating under aristocratic patronage, rather than royal. This may account for the painting’s survival: Elizabeth simply did not know of its existence.

Second, the painter appears to have had limited knowledge of the clothes worn by Queen Elizabeth and her court. The extent of the painter’s isolation from court appears to have forced them to dress their monarch in styles of clothing that were passing out of fashion in the sixteenth century. It is possible the painter used the clothing of another (older) portrait for inspiration. This scenario would also go some way to explain the general lifelessness of the entire portrait.

Third, if our painter were physically distant from the royal court (London), it is reasonable to suppose that this was also true of their patron.

Fourth, and finally, (and assuming we’re happy to accept that the sitter in this portrait is Elizabeth) if the painter’s patron were distant from London and only able to employ a painter with limited skills (compared with the artistic luminaries working within the Tudor court), it may be that he/she was in a weak/fragile position and commissioned Awkward Elizabeth to demonstrate their loyalty to the new monarch in a bid to assert regional authority, especially if the work does date from the very beginning of her reign in 1559. This was a tumultuous period when the monarch was working to establish her Protestant-leaning religious settlement – and breaking with Rome afresh – after the Catholic revival and reunion with Rome that had occurred under her half-sister Mary.

79 thoughts on “Would the Real Queen Elizabeth Please Stand Up

  1. Art has such a way of immortalizing figures. The queen’s choice to have herself depicted this way through art, is really a great exercise of her power. It’s also a great recognition of the power that lies in art.

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  3. I really enjoyed your analysis of this. I find the naïve painting quite endearing – the Elizabeth depicted has such a sweet, slightly cheeky demeanour!

  4. This is interesting, I have always thought Elizabeth was a well rounded blend of her parents, and I can see some of Henry VIII in that portrait. (But maybe that is just my mind playing tricks on me). It’s been said that both Elizabeth and Mary were keen fashionistas, so perhaps the clothing was the making of the artist? Interesting to speculate!

  5. It’s really interesting , notice how the pattern on the dress doesn’t match up at the chest, perhaps indicating a painter with less talent or perhaps it is painted over another painting. Could it be the painter failed to get a commission to paint her and painted a satirical portrait to take a pop at her, or perhaps it was someone who painted over someone else’s portrait just like Duchamp painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Intriguing!

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  7. Wonderful post! Stumbled open this page entirely accidentally, but I adored this. It was very well thought through, showed great knowledge and the writing style was incredibly eloquent. Looking forward to exploring more! xx

  8. Wonderful post! I’ve always been fascinated by this queen and her indefatigable lust for power… even to her portraits.

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  10. Isn’t it a bit of a stretch to say this new painting shows Elizabeth as “physically awkward and psychologically hesitant? Her pose does seem slightly different but could be due to any number of factors.

    • I don’t doubt that physical awkwardness and psychological hesitancy are caused by ‘any number of factors’, but whatever their cause – which is not directly my argument – an artist can still choose to depict them. The physical awkwardness is apparent when this portrait is compared to that of 1564, and it not much of a ‘stretch’ to suggest this could be due to psychological factors – even allowing for the painter’s limited skill – when we consider Elizabeth’s age, political situation in 1559, and the fact that she is not known to have suffered from any physical ailments – aside from periods of illness – during her life. Interestingly, you say the ‘pose’ of this portrait is ‘different’: what would you identify as key distinguishing features?

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  12. Absolutely fascinating. Even more so interesting to know how presentation of leadership has been essential to the role of power and how it lives on to this day. Also, would you please tell me how do we identify lifelessness and the contrary in a painting? What elements are we looking for? Thanks!

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  14. This is really interesting! Thank you for writing this great article. I have always been interested in the Tudor era and the way portraits were used to portray oneself. I wrote a similar post on my blog comparing different Anne Boleyn portraits.

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  16. Thank you for some great research. In looking at this portrait, I am reminded very strongly of the portraits of Mary Queen of Scots. Could the attribution be wrong? Thanks again

  17. This was really cool! It is crazy to think how we truly don’t know what some of history’s biggest names actually looked like. One I find fascinating is Anne Boleyn, the description of her appearance vary so much, especially since so many people disliked her.

  18. Fascinating, having looked at and researched the clothes and jewels in the portraits of Elizabeth 1 all my life and wrote thesis on it for my degree in Fashion. I now paint portraits for a living. I would say it is a copy of a copy of a copy, and a bad one at that. This and other such portraits were gathered up and burned and were the reason that a decree was passed to say portraits of the queen had to by law follow a set pattern. The pose in this particular portrait is a mirror image of one in the collection of the Duke Of Beaufort, see ‘Gloriana’ by Strong P.60. The painter was probably just that, not an artist, and obviously had no concept of the human form hence the gawky awkwardness of the Queen. He has made up his his own details of coat and dress, the headdress with a ‘widows peak’ and the coat are not dissimilar to those in the portrait on P.58 of the same book painted around 1560-65, of which there is a head and shoulders version in the NPG. Elizabeth Waller designed one based on that for Glenda Jackson in the 1971 BBC series Elizabeth R. The artist has given the sitter a patterned gold dress and sleeves, a fabric only worn by royalty. I can’t remember the dates on laws on fabric, and who could wear what. What is very strange and doesn’t occur in any other painting of Elizabeth is the lack of any jewellery. Even with the original image in front of them artist used artistic licence with clothes and dress. The great collar on Henry VIII in the Chatsworth cartoon varies slightly in all other variations of that portrait the same with all the variants of Elizabeth 1 in the ‘Ditchley’ Portrait. When I was at school one of the curators from the NPG came to talk to us, he brought a Tudor painting in his briefcase of the same sort of standard, and said ‘just because it is old it does not mean it is worth anything, it is a copy of a copy, and a bad painting.’ This painting is interesting because of this this none the less.

  19. Incredible how Queen Elizabeth was able to control all images with the likeness of her. When you have all the power in the world back then, wouldn’t you rather hang up a good portrait instead of a poorly drawn portrait?

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