It can be difficult to get a personal sense of Elizabeth I from her portraits. The Gallery owns eleven painted portraits of the queen, as well as numerous prints, and although these images offer the opportunity to chart her changing appearance throughout her reign, they were usually carefully constructed to present the image of a powerful sovereign, rather than a literal depiction of the woman who ruled England. The disparity between Elizabeth’s actual likeness and the images that aimed to display the rhetoric of her beauty grew more apparent towards the end of her reign. It was then that images emerged which bore little resemblance to the aging queen, but rather idealised her behind the so-called ‘mask of youth’. The motivation behind the production of these images is very understandable – without a direct heir, her closest advisors wished to project an image that suggested that there were many years in hand in which to solve the question of the succession.
With this in mind, the electrotype copy of Elizabeth’s tomb monument provides a fascinating alternative viewpoint. This has recently gone on display in Room 3 as part of the display ‘Queens and Consorts: Likeness in Life and Death’. As a three-dimensional object on a human scale the sculpture offers the opportunity to come face to face with the queen, and on close inspection it is notable how much more plausibly it depicts a sixty-nine year old woman. Tomb monuments also aimed to project an image of timeless majesty, but it is notable that the mask of youth has been lifted to reveal a closer approximation of her true features. The face, as carved by Maximilian Colte, is still idealised to some extent - particularly in the smoothness of the finish - but the portrait is likely to have been based on a death mask. As such, it offers a unique glimpse of the face of the woman that lay behind the iconography of power.
Top: Detail from Queen Elizabeth I, by Crispijn de Passe the Elder, after Isaac Oliver, line engraving, probably late sixteenth or early seventeenth century
Bottom: Detail from Queen Elizabeth I, by Elkington & Co, cast by Domenico Brucciani, after Maximilian Colte, electrotype, 1873 (original c. 1605-1607)