The Manteo portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Larry E. Tise, Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History, East Carolina University, USA
Sara N. James, Professor of Art History, Mary Baldwin College, USA

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

The February 1958 issue of the American magazine Antiques carried an advertisement for the sale of a portrait of ‘Queen Elizabeth I wearing the same jewels as on the National Portrait Gallery “Ditchley.”’ Offered for sale without a disclosed price by the Berry-Hill Galleries at 743 Fifth Avenue, New York, the portrait in question was dated circa 1592 and described as an oil painting on wood panel measuring 30 x 22 inches and in a frame measuring 40 x 38 inches.  The painting was purchased almost immediately by Mrs. Ruth Coltrane Cannon, the wealthy spouse of a prominent American textile magnate. She was herself a formidable leader in the cultural, gardening, and historic preservation community in North Carolina and had just finished buying hundreds of valuable historical and decorative items to furnish the lavishly reconstructed and elegantly appointed Tryon Palace at New Bern, North Carolina. This particular purchase, however, was made on behalf of the Garden Club of North Carolina and was selected to adorn the entrance to the Club’s newly completed Elizabethan Garden at Manteo, NC. The portrait was installed in the gatehouse of the Garden in 1959 and there it remained almost untouched until 2008 when a visiting literary historian working on a book on the image of Elizabeth I in portraiture declared the painting to be a surprisingly stark and telling rendition of the Ditchley portrait with an ‘aged countenance’ and ‘definitely an unflattering realism’. The attendant publicity on the potential uniqueness and value of the portrait caused its owners to lock it away safely in an archival vault.

In February 2010 the portrait was delivered to East Carolina University where it was analyzed and examined under the supervision of a team of history and art history scholars and a professional conservator. Over a period of approximately ten weeks the painting was photographed and subjected to a battery of non-invasive tests conducted by our conservator Susanne Grieve, including analysis of the obverse and reverse of the painted panels and of the surrounding frame.  Further tests involved ultra violet light, infrared spectrum photography, x-ray fluorescence, and a constant photographic recording of all procedures by photographer Joseph Barricella. Scholars from other institutions participated in the examinations as well. When the studies were completed, Grieve summarized her observations and made a number of recommendations for further treatment, analysis, and future storage. She noted that previous analyses of the portrait by professional conservators (1977, 1984, and 1985) had supported the notion that the portrait derived from the sixteenth century - although it had been variously repaired, cleaned, restored, given some infill painting, and varnished during the course of its four centuries of existence. All studies conducted at East Carolina during 2010 confirmed this thesis. 

At the same time the painting was being analyzed by conservators, other scholars involved in the project conducted further research to ascertain the provenance and the art historical character of the portrait. Neither the archival records of Berry-Hill Galleries, of Mrs. Cannon, nor the Garden Club of North Carolina has yielded any documents that would shed further light on the origins of the painting other than that it came to Berry-Hill from an English estate in 1958 after conservation by the firm of W. Freeman and Son, LTD in London. Prior contacts with the late Robin Gibson at the National Portrait Gallery in 1985 yielded a letter that, in the opinion of the Gallery, the Manteo portrait ‘is one of several versions or copies of our “Ditchley” portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger [and] . . . your label ought to say “Studio of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger” for the artist’. Meanwhile, our contacts with numerous English estates that possess or have possessed copies of the Ditchley image of Queen Elizabeth have turned up some tantalizing possibilities, but not the firm historical connection that would explain the origins of this particular variation of the great Ditchley portrait. 

During the 2010 National Portrait Gallery / Courtauld Institute conference, entitled Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage, we were able to consult with a variety of London-based authorities on Tudor and Jacobean portraiture —some of whom specialize in conservation, scientific analysis, style analysis, and the oeuvre of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.  Through these consultations we have learned that the Manteo portrait is probably not the work of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger himself, but rather that it may be a part of a body of similar Elizabethan era portraits in which the queen is shown in the Ditchley jewels and a related pose, but wearing a different dress.  Initial analysis of detailed photographs of boards upon which the image is painted confirmed a pre-1650 date; further dendrochronological studies could reveal a narrower range of dates. Moreover, the underdrawing reveals that the face pattern of the Manteo portrait could be the same one as that used for the Burghley House portrait showing the queen in the Ditchley dress and jewels.  The Manteo portrait was thus likely one of the many excellent portraits of Queen Elizabeth I that was proudly hung among those royal portraits that appeared in the proud long galleries of her loyal, wealthy, upwardly mobile, status-conscious subjects.