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Queen Elizabeth I

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Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown artist, 1580s-1590s - NPG 200 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Tudor and Jacobean Portraits Database

Queen Elizabeth I

by Unknown artist
oil on panel, 1580s-1590s
26 1/4 in. x 19 1/4 in. (666 mm x 488 mm)
NPG 200


Key findings: The portrait of Elizabeth was painted over an unfinished portrait of a woman, and the iconography of the portrait of the queen changed significantly during the painting process.

Historical summary
The portrait was given to the Gallery by the Mines Royal, Mineral and Battery Society in 1865. These mining monopolies were created by Elizabeth I and the portrait was said to have been given to the Mines Royal by Prince Rupert (1619-1682) when he was governor; it hung for nearly 200 years in the court room of the societies.

Notes on likely authorship and justification
The handling indicates that the picture was produced in an English workshop and it is likely to be an example of a type which was once more common. It uses the face pattern that relates to the ‘Darnley’ portrait of Elizabeth I. This was frequently used to produce images of the queen and therefore does not help to identify the artist.

Commentary on condition, painting style and technique
The portrait of Elizabeth is painted over a portrait of a woman which had been abandoned before it was finished. Only the head had been painted and no other part of the composition is present. The paint layers for the portrait of Elizabeth were thinly applied and the paint surface is very worn, mostly due to vigorous cleaning in the past. The eyes and nose of the portrait below can be seen where the forehead of Elizabeth has been abraded (see detail 01).

The portrait of Elizabeth was painted in a straightforward and systematic manner. The costume details are difficult to interpret because there are several changes in the pattern. The artist changed the composition and iconography of the portrait significantly during the painting process. The original design showed the queen holding a snake, an emblem of wisdom, which was fully modelled. However, this design was abandoned – probably because of the alternative negative associations with the snake emblem. Flesh paint was applied over the snake when the fingers were opened out and extended to hold a small bunch of roses. The roses held in the hand have become less distinct, partly because the underlying snake has become more evident due to the increased transparency of the paint layers, and also because the red lake has faded (see detail 02).

Justification for dating
Dendrochronological analysis suggests that the panel, and its first use, dates from between 1572 and 1582. This fits with the dating of the costume for the portrait of the woman underneath, which dates to the 1570s.The ‘Darnley’ face pattern of the queen was in use throughout the 1580s and into the 1590s.

Drawing and transfer technique
Infrared reflectography did not reveal any carbon-based underdrawing.

Relevance to other known versions
Other versions with similar costume:
- Royal Collection, RCIN 403451
- Reading Museums Service
- Government Art Collection, 1388

Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, pp. 21-2
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp.103, 109-112


X-ray mosaic 01. X-ray image of the whole pai…
IRR mosaic 01. Infrared reflectogram mosaic o…
Micro 02. Detail of the eye on the right (7.1…
Micro 03. Detail of the eye on the left in th…
Micro 05. Detail of the veil (7.1 x mag).
Micro 06. Detail of a rose in the hair (7.1 x…
Micro 07. Edge of the ruff, chin and lower li…
Micro 08. Detail of the ruff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 09. Detail of a jewel on the doublet (7…
Micro 10. Detail of a jewel on the doublet (7…
Micro 11. Detail of the rose over the snake (…
Micro 12. Detail of the edge of the hand and…
Micro 13. Detail of the Garter medal (7.1 x m…
Micro 14. Detail of the medal ribbon (7.1 x m…
Micro 15. Detail of the edge of the hand, cuf…
Micro 16. Detail of the edge of the leaves an…
Micro 17. Detail of a rose and restoration (3…
Micro 18. Detail of the doublet, showing the…
Micro 19. Detail of the sleeve on the left, s…
Detail 01. Detail of the face.

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Compare high-resolution images against the painting - mainly x-ray and infra-red photography images, but sometimes UV or raking light images - side by side with the ability to zoom in on details.

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The joins in the panel appear to be secure. The paint surface is very abraded, due mostly to vigorous cleaning, probably when past restorers were trying to understand the presence of the portrait beneath.
The surface of the passages of impasto (in the jewels and embroidery) are very worn. There are the remains of white impasto decoration on the doublet, most of which appears to have been scraped off. The green leaves of the roses have discoloured and become brown but have been restored in the past with a translucent blue. The abraded surface has not been restored. The varnish is clear and even.


Support type: Eastern Baltic oak

Number of boards: 2

Panel Orientation: Vertical

Panel condition observations

Glue and filler applied during the 1981 restoration campaign is evident along the join on the verso. There is evidence of woodworm damage along the right-hand edge (from the back), which probably accounts for the isolated wood loss and uneven nature of this edge. An area of delamination was noted in the left-hand board (from the back), approximately 97 mm from the lower edge. The area of delamination is approximately 98 mm in length and has some movement, although this does not appear to be disturbing the paint on the front.

Dendrochronology (what's this? )


An examination of tree rings, which can help to provide the earliest possible felling dates for the wood used for the panel. The technique can also indicate the geographical origin of the wood.

Number of boards: 2

Last date of tree ring: 1567


The two boards were labelled A and B from the left (from the front) for the purpose of analysis. Sapwood was present at the outermost edges of both boards, which appear to derive from different trees. The date of the last tree ring on board A was identified as 1564, whilst the date of the last tree ring on board B was identified as 1567. Adding the minimum and maximum expected number of sapwood rings suggests that these different trees were felled between 1566 and 1582, and 1572 and 1588 respectively. In combination these provide a conjectural usage-date range for the panel's first use of between 1572 and 1582. Board B is 341 mm wide, which is wide compared with the typical range for Baltic boards and suggests that there is little chance the board has been significantly trimmed.

X-radiography (what's this? )


A technique used to identify changes in composition beneath the surface of the paint layers and to understand the physical structure of a panel or canvas.

The vertical wood grain and broadly applied priming are clearly visible in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). The priming appears to have been laid on with reasonably short, horizontally hatched brushstrokes and a relatively stiff brush.

There are several complicated changes; the x-ray clearly shows that there is an earlier female head, with a ruff and headdress, beneath the current portrait. The earlier face was painted in a higher position, with the sitter facing to her right, rather than her left as we see Elizabeth in the final painting. Given the level of modelling evident in the earlier portrait, it is likely that it was relatively highly finished before the painting was abandoned. In addition, a change in the hands of the Elizabeth portrait can also be seen, indicating that the sitter was originally holding a snake, before this was changed to small bunch of roses. The hand appears to have initially been painted clasped round the snake, and the fingers were later extended over details of the costume when the fingers were extended. The x-ray also clearly shows how parts of the costume were painted. For example, the sleeves were fully painted with small floral and pearl details, before the semi-translucent brown veil was painted on above. The fabric with white flowers is more evident in x-ray than on the paint surface, particularly on the sleeve on the right. The floral fabric seems to have been painted over with a thin light grey fabric, with white highlights on the creases. The x-ray also shows that the paint does not fully extend to the lower edge.

Infrared reflectography (what's this? )

Infra-Red Reflectographyclose

A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.

No underdrawing was detected with infrared reflectography, but the broadly applied priming is visible. The eyes, nose and headdress of the earlier female portrait beneath that of Elizabeth can be seen (see IRR mosaic 01). Infrared reflectography also shows that Elizabeth's hand has been altered and that the snake was fully modelled. The details in the various layers of the dress can be seen. The reserve left for the rose in the hair is evident. The hand was painted into a reserve but, when the snake was painted over, the fingers were extended and applied over the slashes already painted in the costume.

Paint sampling (what's this? )

Paint Samplingclose

Investigation into microscopic pigment samples or samples of other media in order to help with dating, to reveal the order of the paint layers and help to understand the painting techniques used.

Paint samples were taken to analyse the pigments and layer structure of the painting in October/November 2009.

The paint was generally brittle to sample and fragmented when sampled. No explanation for this brittleness was apparent.

Preparation layers
There is a chalk ground but it was difficult determine whether there is a priming layer. In sample 4, a tiny trace with white pigments attached to the ground may be part of a pale priming.

The samples were taken from areas over the lower face, and therefore the layer structure is complex.
Sample 5: Cross-section shows flesh for Elizabeth is a mixture of lead white, vermilion, red lake, a little black; and that the flesh mixture for the underlying portrait is similar, but paler with less red. A black particle may be from the underdrawing for Elizabeth. The sample was taken from flesh paint over underdrawing. Sample 6 shows the same paint mixtures.

The black (diamond) jewels contain two different blacks, identified with dispersions.
Sample 3: Lamp black for the central part, a duller, greyish black.
Sample 4: Plant black for the outer part, more glossy with large particles, with a little azurite mixed into it.
Sample 1: The grey/blue flowers on the fabric on the sleeve on the left are lead white and charcoal black, creating an optical blue.

Microscope observations, not sampled:
- The dull yellow on the red jewel on the centre of the chest may be a mordant for a lost metal leaf. The red contains vermilion and red lake. A red jewel on the right side contains two reds, one brighter, which is vermilion, than the other. Grey particles are probably caused by deterioration in the vermilion.
- A dark jewel seems to be an earth-based brown but could be an organic lake which has become opaque. The dark paint in the jewel contains vermilion and traces of red lake.
- The lead-tin yellow border of the jewels seems to be in two tones.

Green ribbon
The paint contains azurite with a possible glaze in the shadows, and the pink stripes are a red lake and white lead mixture.

Sample 4: The snake was painted over the dress in at least two layers. The dark layer contains black, azurite particles and some deep red lake. The black has unusually large particles and may be a plant black, such as fruit-stone black. The shadows are dark reddish brown, the highlight is azurite and lead-tin yellow to create green.

The roses are painted with a strong red lake which has faded considerably. The leaves were painted with copper green glaze which has deteriorated to brown.

The dark brown background seems to be painted with a bright red ochre and lead white mixture. The appearance of the layers above, a translucent but intense brown, suggests an organic brown such as Cassell's earth.

Surface examination (what's this? )

Surface Examinationclose

An examination of the construction of paint layers, glazes and condition often using a microscope. This method provides important evidence concerning an artist’s technique and paint handling and can reveal a specific artist’s characteristic painting style.

Painting style and method
The portrait of Elizabeth was painted over an earlier portrait which had been abandoned; x-ray shows a female head, facing in the opposite direction. The eyes and nose can be seen where the paint in the forehead of the Elizabeth portrait has been abraded. The ruff and the hat are also evident. The rest of the composition is not present and the portrait was evidently left unfinished. The portrait of Elizabeth is painted in a straightforward and systematic manner. The paint was thinly applied in most parts, with thicker more impasted paint used for the gold details of the jewels, the gold embroidery patterns on the sleeves and edges of the slashes in the fabric.

Preparation layers
There is a chalk ground and a pale priming layer. A thin, transparent brown laying-in layer was applied to most of the surface.

The flesh of the Elizabeth portrait was painted very thinly, directly above the underlying female face, with no apparent layer between. The flesh of the Elizabeth portrait is composed of lead white, black, vermilion and a little red lake. The chin area is unusually dark and difficult to interpret. The dark appearance of the flesh in this area appears partly due to the presence of the thin translucent brown laying-in layer which has been brushed up from the collar beneath the flesh paint. This thin translucent brown covers the ruff of the lower portrait, which had been broadly painted in, and is evident in x-ray (see x-ray mosaic 01). A small amount of pale grey collar paint from the Elizabeth portrait was brushed up over the final flesh paint (see micro 07), which contributes to the dark appearance of the chin. The purpose of brushing up the grey paint here is not clear, and may have been accidental. The lower portrait is visible beneath the upper paint layers in some areas: in the hair, the forehead, and down the side of the queen's face on the right (see micro 03 and detail 01). The eyes of the Elizabeth portrait were simply painted with charcoal black, lead white, vermilion and red lake (see micro 02).

The hair was very thinly painted above the pale priming, using a medium-rich mixture of black, earth pigments and red (vermilion). Lead-tin yellow and lead white were used for highlights and the priming layer shows through the hair as a mid-tone. Where lead-tin yellow is used, it is mixed with earth pigments and black.

Hands, and the snake and roses
The hand of Elizabeth was initially painted holding a serpent, which was fully modelled (see micro 12). Before the painting was finished, the hands were altered; the snake was painted out with flesh colour, and the fingers were opened out and extended to hold a small bunch of roses. The fingers were extended over slashes already painted on the costume. The flesh paint is composed of lead white, charcoal black, earth pigments and a little red lake. The roses were painted in a similar manner to the rose in Elizabeth's hair, using lead white and red lake (see micro 11 and micro 06). The original leaves for the roses appear to have been composed of a copper green glaze, which has degraded to a translucent brown. Highlights on the original leaf were made with verdigris and lead-tin yellow (see micro 16). The leaf and stem have since been reinforced with a translucent blue pigment, which can be seen to flow into old losses and cracks in the original paint (see micro 17). Surface examination shows that the rose petals once extended to the edge of the ruby jewel to its left. Micro 10 shows remnants of red lake and lead white from the rose petals, which are now extremely worn. The flesh paint in the hand was finished at a very late stage, after the white lace cuff details were applied (see micro 15). The snake initially held by Elizabeth was painted in dark grey, with bright green, yellow and red details.

A thin transparent brown toning layer seems to have been applied beneath much of the portrait, before the upper paint layers were applied. The ruff was thinly laid in above this layer with a flat application of pale grey (see micro 08). The ruff was applied after the face and before the hair was painted, and the lead white lace details were added at a late stage.

The jewels, the slashes, and the horizontal bands of curving vine embroidery were the last part of the sleeves to be painted. Changes in the details on the sleeves were made during the painting process. A different pattern of horizontal bands of gold thread embroidery was applied first, but these bands were then covered when the fine fabric with white flowers was painted over them. It seems that a thin layer of light grey, with white highlights for creases, was then painted over the fabric with white flowers. This is most evident in the sleeve on the right, where most of the white flowers are covered but are visible with x-ray (see micro 19). The gold bands with vine embroidery are painted over the light fabric. The first gold bands have become visible again, due to increased transparency in the thin paint layers as well as abrasion. Small diagonal slash lines are painted wet-in-wet into the highlights on the sleeves.

The doublet was thinly painted over the thin brown laying-in layer, using pale grey/brown laid in broadly. This mixture is composed of lead white, charcoal black, earth pigments and red (vermilion). The thickness varies according to the amount of translucent brown required to show through to the surface. The translucent brown layer shows throughout the upper paint layers where it is most thinly applied, and acts as a mid-tone (see micro 08). Flat applications of lead white were added above for highlights. There are some small areas in white highlights across the chest where a floral pattern is scored into the white highlight paint, wet-in-wet, with a small point (see micro 18). Further embroidered details were added above these lower layers, using a variety of patterns. These patterns appear to overlap, in the same way as the sleeves, making the costume details difficult to interpret. There are remains of a white floral pattern on the left side of the doublet, most of which has been removed, apparently during vigourous cleaning. Jewel details and slashes were added over the grey layer using lead-tin yellow applied pure or mixed with red (vermilion or red lead). Two different black pigments appear to have been used for jewel stones; a rich dark black identified as plant black and a grey black identified as lamp black (see Paint sampling and micro 09). The red jewels on the doublet and sleeves were painted with vermilion and red lake (see micro 10). Microscopic examination suggests that the vermilion used here has begun to deteriorate to a blackened form. This deterioration is visible as small dark grey sparkly spots of the surface of the red. A considerable amount of discoloured varnish residue can be seen on the costume.

Headdress and rose
An initial reserve was left for the rose in the hair (see IRR mosaic 01). The rose was then painted directly above the pale priming using a mixture of lead white and red lake. The petals extend beyond the reserve, above the painted background (see micro 06). The veil and pearl details were painted at a late stage, after the costume was applied. The dark grey translucent fabric appears to be composed of lead white, charcoal black, earth pigments and a little red lake. The pearls are painted above using lead white, black and lead-tin yellow (see micro 05).

Medal and ribbon
The pendant ribbon is thinly painted above the grey doublet using azurite, earth pigments, lead white and black. Translucent brown glazing provides shadow here. The highlights are composed of lead white, red lake and lead-tin yellow (see micro 14). The St. George and the Dragon medal was painted in lead white above a thin black layer, directly above the costume paint (see detail 03 and micro 13). Due to the poor 'wetting' of the black pigment in oil and the thin nature of the paint layer here, much of the black has been lost with time. This has been restored with a thin transparent blue, of similar appearance to that used in the leaves and stem of the rose.

The background is painted with a thin underlayer of mixed red ochre and lead white directly above the pale priming. There are thin layers of translucent intense brown glaze over the underlayer, which appears to be an organic brown such as Cassells earth. Lead soaps and surface abrasion are evident in the background.

Order of construction
- Chalk ground
- Priming layer
- Head of woman with headdress and ruff laid in
- Brown toning layer over the costume (and possibly the background)
- Elizabeth's face
- Ruff
- Hair
- Grey layer applied for the costume
- Various changes made in the pattern detail on the costume, some covered with a further grey layer
- The hand with the snake was painted before some of the costume changes
- The fingers were lengthened, the snake painted over and the roses were painted after the gold edged slashes, the jewels and the gold trailing vine decoration were applied
- Headdress detail applied at this time and the rose painted in the hair into the reserve left for it
- The blue/green ribbon for the medal was painted after the medal and the costume slashes were painted
- Final finish for the flesh paint on the face and hands was applied after the white lace on the collar and cuffs was applied

Lead white, charcoal black, plant black, lamp black, vermilion, red lake, red ochre, azurite, verdigris, copper green glaze, lead-tin yellow, yellow ochre, organic brown which could be Cassell's earth

Changes in composition/pentimenti
The paint layers in the sleeve are complicated, with changes in detail made during painting. Initially the hand was painted holding a snake. This was changed to a small bunch of roses, and the fingers and the lower edge of the hand extended.

Restoration observations
The green rose leaves held by Elizabeth have been reinforced with a non-original blue. The background of the St. George and the Dragon medal has been reinforced with a similar blue. The worn surface of the painting has not been restored and evidence of the face beneath remains visible.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.

Examination in ultra violet light shows considerable residues of natural resin varnish on the hair, left during careful cleaning. There are also some varnish residues on the dark background and the costume.


Frame type: Not original. Cassetta style frame.

Frame date: 20th Century.