Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh)

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Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh)

by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, 1588
36 in. x 29 3/8 in. (914 mm x 746 mm)
Purchased, 1857
Primary Collection

On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618), Soldier, sailor, poet and writer. Sitter in 48 portraits.

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

Painted in the year of the attack by the Spanish Armada, this is one of the few contemporary portraits of Sir Walter Ralegh in his prime. Ralegh's dramatic costume is lavishly embellished with pearls, symbols of purity much favoured by Elizabeth I. The pearls on his cloak form the rays of a 'sun-in-splendour', a common heraldic device. Research and conservation has revealed a patch of wavy water beneath the crescent moon. Symbolic of Elizabeth I as the moon goddess Cynthia, the motif is also found in Ralegh's poetry, and indicates his willingness to be controlled by the queen as the moon controls the tides. The Latin inscription on the left is 'AMOR ET VIRTUTE' ('By love and virtue') and on the right 'AETATIS SVAE 34 / ANo 1588' ('sitter's age (34) and date of portrait (1588)'). Conserved through the generosity of the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards 2013.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 25
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Charles Nicholl, Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 121
  • Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 23
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 92
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 93
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 22 Read entry

    Ralegh's good looks, wit, literary skills, courtly manners and early success in maritime adventures created significant influence at court, yet he was alternately in and out of favour with the Queen. He presents himself here as the Queen's devoted servant. Although we do not know where the portrait originally hung, the picture was certainly designed to convey Ralegh's absolute loyalty to the Queen.

    His costume is lavishly embroidered with valuable pearls, which as symbols of purity showed his admiration for Elizabeth, the 'Virgin Queen'. Ralegh also wears some of the Queen's personal colours of black and white, and the pattern of his cloak depicts the rays of the sun or the moon, an emblem associated with Elizabeth. At the top left, above a Latin inscription meaning 'by love and virtue', is a crescent moon: a device that perhaps refers to Ralegh's own poetry in praise of the Queen, which compares her with Cynthia, the Moon Goddess.

  • Edited by Rab MacGibbon and Tanya Bentley, Icons and Identities, 2021, p. 66
  • MacLeod, Catherine, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection at Montacute House, 1999, p. 17
  • Nicholl, Charles, Character Sketches: Elizabethan Writers, 1997, p. 48
  • Nicholl, Charles, Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, 2005, p. 96
  • Pointon, Marcia, Hanging the head : portraiture and social formation in eighteenth-¿century England, 1993, p. 233 number 274
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 57
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 63
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 511
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 54 Read entry

    A true ‘Renaissance man’, Walter Ralegh was a poet, explorer and soldier as well as being a favourite of Elizabeth I. Much of his literary work is lost, but about thirty short poems and various prose works survive, including The History of the World (1614) and a cycle of poems to ‘Cynthia’ that were addressed to Elizabeth I. He organised and financed a number of expeditions to North America and later in life made several unsuccessful attempts to find gold in South America. Ralegh spent much of the reign of James I in the Tower of London and was executed for treason in 1618.

    This portrait is a visual statement of Ralegh’s devotion to Elizabeth I. His dramatic costume, in the Queen’s colours of black and white, is lavishly embroidered with pearls, jewels much favoured by the Queen. Conservation treatment has revealed a patch of wavy sea beneath the crescent moon in the top left of the painting. Through this metaphor Ralegh likens the moon goddess Cynthia to the Queen and the water to himself (using a pun on his name Walter), signifying his willingness to be controlled by his sovereign as the moon controls the tides.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Mediaback to top


Events of 1588back to top

Current affairs

The Spanish Armada sets sail for England from Lisbon but after a running battle up the Channel is met by English fire ships off Calais and destroyed. The remainder of the fleet is forced to flee. A huge thanksgiving service is held at St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the victory.
Death of Queen Elizabeth I's favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Art and science

The scientist and colonist Thomas Harriot publishes A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, in which he claims that tobacco has medicinal properties.
Publication of William Morgan's Welsh translation of the Bible.
The playwright Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy is performed for the first time.


Henry III of France flees Paris after the militant catholic Henry, Duke of Guise is welcomed into the city. The King is forced to decree an end to all toleration of the Huguenots (French Protestants) and to annul the Protestant Henry of Navarre's right to the throne. The Duke of Guise is later assassinated on the orders of the King.
Abbas I became Shah of Persia. He will rule the Persian Empire until his death in 1629.

Tell us more back to top

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Peter Wynn

15 November 2015, 22:07

I understand from a local history book "Downton 7000 years of an English village" that this portrait was found at Downton Parsonage Manor before it was sold to the NPG. Is it the same one?

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