The Queen’s Likeness: Portraits of Elizabeth I

During the course of her reign, Queen Elizabeth I became a public icon. Her likeness appeared on a large number of objects - from the coins in purses to large-scale painted portraits. These images were carefully designed and served as a tool to manipulate the public image of the queen. However, only a few portraits of Elizabeth were painted from the life. Instead, once a design or portrait pattern was established, artists made multiple versions and copies to meet the significant demand for portraits of the queen.

Research undertaken as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project has uncovered new information about the original appearance of some of these surviving paintings and identified changes in appearance that have occurred as a result of environmental effects or interventions by later owners.

1. An early portrait of the queen
2. The ‘Darnley portrait’
3. A portrait with a hidden serpent
4. The queen uncovered
5. The ‘Armada portrait’
6. The ‘Ditchley portrait’
7. A posthumous portrait

1. An early portrait of the queen, c. 1560

The portrait

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown English artist
circa 1560
NPG 4449

This portrait dates from the early years of Elizabeth’s reign when she was in her late twenties or early-thirties. It was painted before she became associated with more complex emblems and imagery – for example, relating to virginity or wisdom - that are often found in later portraits, and when she was still expected to enter into marriage. Although the likeness is simplified and rather formulaic it shows the features that are recognisable from her later portraits, such as her dark eyes, narrow nose and red hair.


The background

Technical analysis has shown that the portrait once looked remarkably different: the background was originally a vibrant shade of blue. Paint sampling has revealed that the artist used a glass-based pigment known as ‘smalt’, which fades over time and can cause the oil medium to discolour to a pale brown. The blue background would have made the yellow lettering, which reads ‘Elizabeth Regina’ at the top of the picture, look much more striking.

Figs. 1 and 2: Detail images of the lettering either
side of the queen’s head.

Figs. 3 and 4: Digital reconstruction to show how the inscription would originally have stood out against the background.


Analysis of the drawing under the paint surface has revealed that the portrait was made using a pattern, which was common practice in the sixteenth century. Multiple versions of this portrait were probably painted at this early date in the queen’s reign, and other surviving versions include the ‘Clopton’ portrait and a painting at the Museum of Thetford Life. An attempt to regulate the production of the queen’s image was made in 1563, but only in draft form; it proposed a scheme in which a suitable portrait pattern would receive official endorsement and could then be used by painters and engravers.

Fig. 5: Infrared reflectogram mosaic showing the underdrawing in the face, which is particularly evident in the nose

Fig. 6: Another surviving version of the portrait © Norfolk Museum Service. Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life.

2. The ‘Darnley portrait’, c. 1575

The portrait

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown continental artist
circa 1575
NPG 2082

This remarkable painting is known as the ‘Darnley portrait’ after a previous owner and is one of the most important surviving portraits of Elizabeth I. It was almost certainly painted from life and the resulting pattern for the queen’s face was regularly reused for the remainder of her reign (see section 4). It is likely that it was commissioned by a courtier close to the queen and it is possible that the pendant or the fan may have been a gift from that individual. It was the custom for courtiers and members of the nobility to give the queen gifts at New Year; Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, gave the queen a fan at New Year 1573–4 and there are records of various other fans that were given to her around that time. However, none of the descriptions exactly match the fan in this portrait.

Changes in colour

Fig. 7: Detail of the face, which would originally have appeared much ‘rosier’ as a result of a red lake glaze that is now lost

Fig. 7: Detail of the face, which would originally have appeared much ‘rosier’ as a result of a red lake glaze that is now lost

The colours in this portrait have changed significantly over time. Analysis has shown that Elizabeth’s extremely pale complexion would originally have been much rosier as the reds in the flesh paint have faded. The common assumption that Elizabeth always had very pale features appears to be a myth; however, it is known that in the later part of her reign she wore pale make-up.

Fig. 8: Digitally recoloured image showing how the fabric may originally have appeared.

Fig. 8: Digitally recoloured image showing how the fabric may originally have appeared.

The whole painting would have once been much more vibrant. For example, the embroidery on the queen’s dress would have appeared far richer and the edges of the golden brown pattern may have originally been a reddish purple. This colour change has been caused by the instability of the blue pigment ‘smalt’ as well as the fading of red lake.

Style and method

The analysis indicates that the picture may have been painted by a Netherlandish artist, perhaps one visiting England for a short period. Most of the painting seems to have been carried out by a single artist who worked rapidly and confidently. However, the crown on the table to the right is by another artist and appears to have been added at a very late stage.

Figs. 9 and 10: The freedom of the paint handling in the depiction of the fan can be contrasted with the more methodical use of paint to depict the crown

Fig. 11: Detail from the infrared reflectogram mosaic showing the freehand underdrawing in the hand

Fig. 11: Detail from the infrared reflectogram mosaic showing the freehand underdrawing in the hand

Analysis of the underdrawing has confirmed that part of this portrait was drawn freehand. A number of changes were made to the original design both in the drawing and painting stages. The position of the fan was altered during the painting process; it was originally smaller and positioned slightly higher, and the outline of a handle was drawn in but never painted.

The dress and jewels

Fig. 12: Detail of the jewel that hangs from Elizabeth’s waist

Fig. 12: Detail of the jewel that hangs from Elizabeth’s waist

The masculinity of the queen’s Polish-style doublet in this portrait helps to create an image of a woman equal to her male counterparts in other European countries. The exquisitely painted pendant jewel hanging from the queen’s waist is typical of Renaissance jewels and consists of a large red ruby surrounded by Roman gods. Minerva (the goddess of wisdom) is depicted at the top, Jupiter (ruler of the gods) of at the base and Venus (goddess of love), Cupid and Mars (gods of love and war) at the sides. Most such jewels were gifts from courtiers or important visitors and would have been seen to reflect the Queen’s classical learning.

3. A portrait with a hidden serpent, c. 1580s-90s

The portrait

Due to loss of paint from the surface it is now difficult to see how this painting would have originally looked. The composition was based on an existing portrait formula and numerous versions of this portrait type would have been painted, although very few survive today. Elizabeth is shown wearing the Lesser George, the medal signifying membership of the Order of the Garter, on a ribbon around her neck.

The serpent

The paint in this portrait has become more transparent over time, which has revealed that Elizabeth was originally painted holding a serpent, the outline of which has now become visible. The serpent emblem was part of the original design and would have appeared mainly black with green and yellow scales. Elizabeth’s fingers were originally clasped around the serpent, rather than extended as they are now. At the final stage of the painting process, a decision was made to replace the serpent with a small bunch of roses, which are still partly visible. The emblem of a serpent was an unusual choice. It was sometimes used to represent wisdom, prudence and reasoned judgement, all of which would have been appropriate for Elizabeth to be associated with. However, in the Christian tradition, serpents or snakes have been used to signify Satan and original sin. The decision to remove the serpent from this portrait, therefore, may have been due to the ambiguity of the emblem. Although there are a number of surviving versions of this portrait, none show the Queen holding a serpent.

Fig. 13: Detail showing how the serpent is now visible through the upper paint layers

Fig. 14: Infrared reflectogram mosaic showing that the serpent was fully modelled before being overpainted with the flower

A portrait underneath

Analysis has shown that the portrait of Elizabeth was painted over an unfinished portrait of an entirely different sitter. X-radiography shows a female head in a higher position, facing in the opposite direction to the portrait of Elizabeth. The eyes and nose of the face underneath can now be seen where paint has been lost from Elizabeth’s forehead. The lips and headdress can also be seen, as can the ruff which was positioned underneath Elizabeth’s chin. The identity of the original sitter remains a mystery but the unfinished portrait appears to have been very competently painted, possibly by a different artist. Tree-ring dating shows that the tree used to make one of the boards in the panel was felled after 1572 and so the initial portrait cannot have been painted before this date. This discovery demonstrates the occasional reuse of panels by artists in the sixteenth century.

Fig. 15: X-ray mosaic revealing the portrait of an unknown woman beneath the portrait of Elizabeth I

Fig. 16: Photomicrograph detail showing how the woman’s right eye is now visible beneath Elizabeth’s hair as a result of thinning in the upper paint layers

4. The queen uncovered, c. 1585-90

The portrait

Numerous other versions of this composition survive, including those at the National Maritime Museum and Hever Castle, which provides evidence of the increase in the production of the queen’s portrait in the 1580s. The underdrawing revealed by infrared photography, suggests that Elizabeth’s likeness is based on a pattern that derives from the ‘Darnley’ portrait. There is also some evidence of underpainting in red in the hands and fan, and it is likely that red lake was used to mark out these elements of the composition once the black of the dress had been painted in.

Fig. 17. Version of the portrait at Hever Castle © Hever Castle

Fig. 18: Infrared photograph revealing underdrawing in the face

Fig. 19: Photomicrograph showing red underpaint marking the position of the fan


This portrait was discovered in 1890 in a cottage at Coolham Green, near Shipley, Sussex. It had been built into the panelling of a wall immediately over a fireplace in front of the chimney flue and the surface was so obscured by dirt and smoke that it looked like a blackened panel of wood. Sir Roy Strong argued that the picture may have been originally in the collection of the Viscounts Montague at Cowdray House. However, it is now clear that the ownership of portraits of Elizabeth was much broader than originally thought and included those outside the nobility and gentry. This portrait could have been produced for a lively market and bought ready-made, and therefore determining the original ownership is problematic.

Fig. 20: Cottage where the painting was discovered

Fig. 21: Fireplace above which the painting was hung; the back of the panel had been left bare and a quantity of broken tiles and rubbish had accumulated against it

Changing background

The original background composition was revealed beneath later overpaint using x-radiography, which showed clear folds in cloth behind the queen. Photomicroscopy showed that this cloth was green, painted with a copper green glaze over a grey underlayer, which is similar to the background in the version of the portrait at the National Maritime Museum.

Fig. 22: X-radiography reveals the creases in the original cloth backdrop to the composition

Fig. 23: Photomicrograph detail showing the green paint that lies beneath the black overpaint

5.The ‘Armada portrait’, c. 1588

The portrait

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown English artist
circa 1588
NPG 541

This portrait is one of three principal versions of a composition painted to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The background seascapes and draperies were revealed during conservation treatment in the 1970s and are very similar to those in the other surviving versions at Woburn Abbey and in a Private Collection, although the latter is concealed by seventeenth-century overpaint.

A different format

The panel support for the painting was constructed using horizontally aligned boards, which suggests that it was once landscape in format rather than portrait, and has been trimmed at the sides. This is additional evidence of its close relationship to the other two versions and comparative technical analysis is being undertaken in order to explore the links between the surviving pictures.

A significant date

Unusually, the panel support is made from a mix of English and Baltic oak. The single English board contains sapwood, which means that it is possible to establish a felling-date range for the tree that was used to make the board. The last heartwood ring dated to 1567 and the usage-date range suggests that the panel was used between 1578 and 1600. This conjectural dating for the panel supports the interpretation from the composition that the work was painted to memorialise the Armada, perhaps shortly after 1588.

Fig. 24: Photograph of the reverse taken in raking light, showing the horizontal alignment of the boards used to make the panel support, and the buttons applied at a later date to support the structure

Fig. 25: Detail of the English ships in the background

6. The ‘Ditchley portrait’, c. 1592

The portrait

The courtier who commissioned this portrait, Sir Henry Lee, held estates at Ditchley, Quarrendon and Woodstock, and the portrait remained in the family until it was bequeathed to the Gallery in 1932; the painting was probably made to commemorate the queen’s visit to Ditchley in 1592. Elizabeth is depicted standing on a globe, surrounded by Latin inscriptions on the theme of forgiveness; the painting may have formed part of the lavish allegorical entertainments that were staged during her visit.

A brighter sun

Infrared reflectography reveals that the sun in the upper-left corner was originally depicted in much more detail, with rays stretching across the composition. These are now much less visible due to abrasion of the paint surface. This detail would have linked strongly with the sonnet in the cartouche in the lower-right corner, which refers to the queen as the ‘Prince of light’.

Lavish details

The attention to detail in the paint handling in the globe and jewels is notable given the scale of the painting. The counties of England are painted in different colours and the rivers are painted in a brilliant blue azurite that has also been used for the sea. The buildings are painted in vermillion mixed with lead white, with details carefully applied in pure vermilion and a purple glaze.

Fig. 26: Detail from the digital infrared reflectogram revealing the rays of the sun

Fig. 27: Photomicrograph detail of Wells Cathedral

The armillary sphere that hangs from Elizabeth’s ear was a symbolic reference to her divine power and also an emblem of the annual Accession Day Tilts. This emblem also appears in Anthonis Mor’s 1568 portrait of Sir Henry Lee (NPG 2095). The jewels sewn onto Elizabeth’s gown could be faithful reproductions of specific items as there is some similarity with jewels listed in an inventory that was taken in 1587.

Fig. 28: Detail of the armillary sphere jewel

Fig. 29: Detail of the armillary sphere depicted on Sir Henry Lee’s sleeve in NPG 2095.

7. A Posthumous Portrait, early seventeenth century, with eighteenth-century overpaint

This portrait

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown artist
early 17th century with 18th century overpainting
NPG 542

The portrait of Elizabeth that can be seen at first glance was virtually all painted in the eighteenth century. The queen’s face and hair have been altered in keeping with eighteenth-century standards of beauty and style; her face has been made rounder and younger, and her hair has been repainted in ringlets. However, dendrochronology and x-radiography indicate the picture is painted over the top of an earlier portrait dating from the early seventeenth century (perhaps just after the queen’s death).  The wood used for the panel was felled in the early seventeenth century and the picture may have been repainted because of damage to the original portrait. Several other portraits of Elizabeth exist that were similarly ‘updated’ in the eighteenth century, which indicates a posthumous revival of interest in the queen during this period, possibly in the reign of Queen Anne, the next queen to rule alone.

The original portrait

Fig. 30: The edges of elaborate lace ‘wings’ can be seen at either side of Elizabeth’s head.

Fig. 30: The edges of elaborate lace ‘wings’ can be seen at either side of Elizabeth’s head.

In general, the costume and face pattern of the overpaint follows the composition of the original portrait very closely. However, x-radiography revealed that Elizabeth was originally depicted wearing a veil with large decorative ‘wings’ wired behind her back. This costume was particularly fashionable in the 1590s but would have been considered rather odd over a hundred years later and was painted out.