On eighteenth-century representations of Elizabeth I – a case study of a repainted Tudor portrait

Marie Louise Sauerberg, Paintings Conservator and Assistant to the Director, Hamilton Kerr Institute

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Based on the study of a late sixteenth-century painting from Westminster Abbey, this talk examines portraits of Queen Elizabeth I that, although overpainted in later centuries, were clearly still intended to be recognised as the Queen.

An inscription identifies the Westminster sitter as Elizabeth I, and states that it was painted in the 1590s - when the Queen was in her sixties. However, the portrait now depicts a woman half that age, with her hands and face having been totally, and more plumply, repainted. There is a marked discrepancy between the quality of the original painting, executed at the apogee of the Anglo-Netherlandish tradition of the late 1500s, and the crude and quite formulaic overpaint. Research into other versions of the same painting and their interrelations seem to suggest that the alterations took place around 1700. Updating the portrait to bring it in more in line with contemporary notions of courtly taste is probably part of the explanation for the work, although there may also be other factors behind the changes.

While the Westminster portrait is an interesting case study, it is far from an isolated incident. The collection o the National Portrait Gallery, for instance, contains several examples of Elizabeth I, which were also revamped in the late 1600s or the 1700s. These representations raise intriguing questions concerning the longevity of the portraits of the Virgin Queen, and the changes in the ways in which these images must have functioned within the visual culture of the later centuries.