Queen Elizabeth I
8 of 19 portraits on display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown continental artist
oil on panel, circa 1575
44 1/2 in. x 31 in. (1130 mm x 787 mm)
On display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery
Sitterback to top
- Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Reigned 1558-1603. Sitter associated with 135 portraits.
This portraitback to top
One of the most important surviving images of Elizabeth I, this portrait was almost certainly painted from life, and the resulting pattern for the queen's face was to be repeated for the remainder of her reign. It is known as the 'Darnley portrait' after a previous owner. It shows Elizabeth looking cold, haughty and imperious, wearing a rather masculine doublet with a lace ruff collar, a double string of pearls looped around her neck and carrying an ostrich-feather fan. The portrait may have been painted by a Flemish artist, perhaps one visiting England for a short period. It is likely that it was commissioned by a courtier close to the queen, and it is possible that the pendant or the ostrich feather fan may have been a gift from that person. Behind her on a table lies her crown. It was an image that was much reproduced and is rather more lifelike than some of the later portraits which created the idea of an ageless Virgin Queen. Technical analysis has shown that the colours in this painting have faded over time. Elizabeth's now extremely pale complexion would have been much rosier, however, the red pigments in the flesh paint have faded over time. The golden brown pattern on her dress would originally have been crimson and gold.
Linked publicationsback to top
- 100 Portraits, p. 24
- Smartify image discovery app
- Lost faces : identity and discovery in Tudor Royal portraiture, 2007 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from Catalogue of an exhbition held at Philip Mould, London, 6-18 March 2007), p. 102 number 64
- Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 34 Read entry
On becoming queen, Elizabeth I surrounded herself with able advisors, and together they brought about the re-establishment of the Church of England. She was expected to marry but was constrained in her choice by the fact that an English nobleman would have been beneath her status and risked the development of factions at court, while a European prince raised the spectre of foreign influence in English affairs. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Hercule-François, duc d’Alençon, were Elizabeth’s most persistent suitors, but, ultimately, Elizabeth chose to retain her authority and rule in her own right. Elizabeth’s ministers and courtiers realised that portraiture was a powerful political tool and drafted a proclamation in 1563 to regulate the production of her image. This proposed granting an artist access to the queen in order for a portrait to be taken from life, which could then be used to create a pattern for use by painters and engravers across the country. This portrait, known as the ‘Darnley portrait’ after a previous owner, seems to have served a similar purpose as that laid out in the draft proclamation. It was almost certainly painted from the life and was used as the pattern for portraits of Elizabeth for a number of years. The paint is freely handled, with wet-in-wet blending, in which fresh paint is layered over paint that is not completely dry, particularly evident in the fan. The final red lake glazes in the flesh tones have been lost over time, giving the queen’s complexion a much paler appearance than would originally have been intended.
- Bolland, Charlotte; Cooper, Tarnya, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September 2014 to 1st March 2015)
- Bolland, Charlotte; Cooper, Tarnya, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September 2014 to 1st March 2015), p. 146
- Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina ., Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), p. 44
- Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 16
- Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 7 Read entry
Almost certainly painted from life, this became the model for many later portraits, helping to perpetuate an image of austere maturity. It is referred to as the ‘Darnley’ portrait after a previous owner.
- Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 30
- Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 158
- Cooper, Tarnya, Searching for Shakespeare (hardback), 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March - 29 May 2006), p. 158
- Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 64
- Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 32
- Gibson, Robin, Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 37
- Parris, Matthew, Heroes and Villains: Scarfe at the National Portrait Gallery, 2003 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 30 September 2003 to 4 April 2004), p. 26
- Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 50
- Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 42
- Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 54
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 45
- Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 45 Read entry
The 'Darnley Portrait' of Elizabeth I, so called because it used to belong to the Earls of Darnley, is one of the key images of the Queen. It shows her looking cold, haughty and imperious, wearing a rather masculine doublet with a lace ruff collar, a double string of pearls looped around her neck, and carrying an ostrich-feather fan. Behind her on a table lies her crown. It was an image that was much reproduced, and is rather more lifelike than some of the later portraits which created the idea of an ageless Virgin Queen.
- Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 200
- Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 102
- Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 51 Read entry
Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, succeeded to the throne in 1558, her long reign characterised by relative peace and prosperity. This portrait shows a confident ruler and would have been produced following a direct sitting from the life. The resulting pattern was used for the remainder of the Queen’s reign, suggesting that she approved of the likeness. The pigments used in this portrait have faded over time. Elizabeth’s pale complexion would originally have appeared much rosier and her costume would have been crimson and white.
While the artist is unrecorded, the sophisticated and swiftly rendered paint suggests a talented Continental painter, possibly from the Netherlands. Technical analysis has revealed lively underdrawing that evolved as the artist worked. The crown and the sceptre on the table behind are later additions by another, less competent, artist and may have been included at the request of the patron. Formerly at Cobham Hall, Kent, the portrait may have been painted for William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, although it is known today as the ‘Darnley’ portrait after a subsequent owner.
Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top
Subjects & Themesback to top
Mediaback to top
Events of 1575back to top
Current affairsQueen Elizabeth I declines the offer of sovereignty of the Netherlands made by William of Orange, leader of the Dutch Protestant resistance to Spanish rule.
The royal favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester hosts a lavish entertainment for the Queen at Kenilworth.
Art and scienceThe composers William Byrd and Thomas Tallis dedicate Cantiones Sacrae (Sacred Songs) to Queen Elizabeth I after receiving a royal patent for the exclusive right to publish music.
InternationalFacing bankruptcy, Philip II of Spain suspends all payments by the Spanish crown. Don Luis de Requesens can no longer pay his troops in the Netherlands.
Akbar, Mughal Emperor of India, conquers Bengal.
The Battle of Nagashino features the first decisive use of firearms in Japanese warfare.
See this portrait
On display in Room 2 at the National Portrait Gallery