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 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.
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.