Queen Elizabeth I

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Queen Elizabeth I

by Unknown English artist
oil on panel, circa 1588
38 1/2 in. x 28 1/2 in. (978 mm x 724 mm)
NPG 541


The three versions of the ‘Armada’ portrait of Elizabeth I appear to be by different artists.

The portrait was presented to the British Museum in 1765 by David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchanan (styled Lord Cardross); it was transferred to the Gallery in 1879.

Historical summary
The portrait is one of three principal versions of the composition, painted to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The horizontal alignment of the boards strongly suggests that the portrait was originally landscape format, as in the versions at Woburn Abbey and in the Tyrwhitt-Drake Collection, and has been cut down at some point. The background seascapes, showing the English fleet on the left and the wreck of the Spanish fleet on the right, were revealed by conservation work in 1974.

Notes on attribution
The condition of this portrait makes attribution particularly problematic but the paint handling suggests that it is by an English artist. The portrait type has previously been associated with George Gower, who was Elizabeth I’s Serjeant Painter. However, it is evident that the three versions are by different hands and recent research into Gower’s technique suggests that this portrait cannot be attributed to the artist.

Justification for dating
This portrait is likely to have been commissioned soon after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as another portrait type of Elizabeth I was in circulation from the early 1590s. The technique and materials in use are entirely consistent with a work from this period; dendrochronological analysis suggested that one of the trees used to make the panel was felled after 1578.

The original paint surface is heavily abraded and extensively restored throughout, particularly in the background, the black parts of the dress, the hair and the flesh. The top board is not original. The blue floral jewels on the sleeves have been strengthened with Prussian blue, probably in the eighteenth century.

Painting technique
Considerable old restoration remains under the most recent campaign, making the interpretation of the original surface problematic. However, some original paint can be seen with surface microscopy, including the original layer structure, which consists of a white chalk ground and a translucent lead-based priming layer, containing lead white, red ochre, carbon black and some yellow ochre. The flesh is thinly painted, allowing the streaky priming to remain visible.

Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing could be detected during surface examination or using infrared reflectography. However, reserves left for elements of the costume are clearly visible, such as the pearl necklaces and bows, which indicates that some type of drawing was used. The close similarity to the other versions clearly indicates that a pattern was used.

Other known versions
The portrait is closely related to the two full-size versions on panel:
- Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire
- William Tyrwhitt-Drake version, now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Queen’s House
Other comparisons:
-Private Collection, on canvas, with green cloth of honour in the background (sold by Philip Mould, ex. coll. Charles Hubert Archibald Butler, sold by Christie’s, 22 November 2006, lot 9)
- Jesus College, University of Oxford, full length
- Trinity College, University of Cambridge, full length
- Toledo Museum of Art, on canvas, half length (ex. coll. Tollemache)
- Christ Church, Oxford (two)
- Charlecote Park

Bolland, Charlotte and Tarnya Cooper, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014, pp. 151-4
Hearn, Karen, ‘Elizabeth I’ in K. Hearn, ed., Dynasties, exh. cat., Tate, 1996, cat. no. 43, p. 88
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, pp.103-4
Wösten, Lidwien, Rica Jones and Christine Slottved Kimbriel, ‘A study of three paintings by George Gower’, The Hamilton Kerr Intstitute Bulletin, 5, 2015, pp. 121-36

Exhibition history
‘Les Tudors’, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 2015
‘A New World: England’s First View of America’, British Museum, London, 2007


Micro 01. Detail of the eye on the left (7.1…
Micro 03. Detail of lips (7.1 x mag).
Micro 04. Detail of hair, with restoration (7…
Micro 05. Detail of the edge of a boat and th…
Micro 06. Detail of green curtain beneath ruf…
Micro 07. Detail of restored green curtain (7…
Micro 08. Detail of lace ruff (7.1 x mag).
Micro 09. Detail of horizon in the background…
Micro 10. Detail of St George's flag and rest…
Micro 11. Detail of jewel on dress (7.1 x mag…
Micro 12. Detail of the edge of a red bow and…
Micro 13. Detail of purple bow (7.1 x mag).
Micro 14. Detail of pigment mixture in a purp…
Micro 15. Detail of reserve for pearl necklac…
Micro 16. Detail of pearl necklace (7.1 x mag…
Micro 18. Detail of sleeve on the left (7.1 x…
Micro 20. Detail of overpainted green curtain…
UV 01. Front of the panel in ultra violet lig…
Reverse 01. Back of the panel in raking light…

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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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There is a considerable amount of restoration throughout, particularly along the panel joins, background, hair and face; the paint along the right edges of the upper and lower panel joins is raised. There does not appear to be any original paint on the top board. Pre-conservation photography from 1974 clearly shows that at this time, the background was entirely painted out with a uniform dark paint layer. During treatment in 1974 this was removed, and the background and curtain were overpainted with thin, semi-transparent restoration. The original paint in these areas appears very thin, heavily abraded and fragmentary. Small islands of original paint are visible in the background, surrounded by larger passages that have been scrubbed to the level of the priming. The paint in the costume is generally better preserved, and less restored than elsewhere. There are some areas of drying craquelure in black passages of the costume and two deep scratches can be seen in the central and lower right portion of the painting. The varnish is clear and even, although has a slightly sprayed appearance.


Support type: Eastern Baltic and English oak

Number of boards: 4

Panel Orientation: Horizontal

Panel condition observations

Three rows of five non-original wooden buttons are present along the panel joins. Due to a discrepancy in thickness between the second and third boards from the top, some original wood has been carved out of the second board, in order to adhere the supportive buttons. Some deep vertical and horizontal gauge marks can be seen on the verso along the left-hand edge. These marks appear to relate to the positioning and carving out of the non-original buttons.

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: 4

Last date of tree ring: 1570


The four horizontal boards were labelled A to D from the top for the purpose of analysis. Board A is narrow and slow grown; it has fewer rings than the other boards, and no useful dating or sourcing evidence could be found. Boards B and D are straight grained; board B has saw marks on the back and board D has 'shave' marks parallel to the grain, which is normal. Board C is unusually wide and the grain is slightly distorted; it has marks that are not parallel with the grain, which is unusual. The presence of sapwood means that a felling date range can be applied to the panel. Boards B and D both match eastern Baltic data and the last rings date from 1560 and 1570 respectively. Adding the minimum expected number of sapwood rings suggests a felling date after 1578. Board C matches English data, principally with material from the London area. Board C included 2 sapwood rings and the last heartwood ring dated to 1567. Adding the conjectural minimum and maximum number of sap rings (10 - 46 for English oak) suggests that the tree was felled between 1577 and 1613. This can be further refined by applying an eastern Baltic LEHR-usage range of 8-40 years to the two Baltic boards, both of which were of reasonably typical widths; this indicates a usage period of 1578 to 1600 for this panel.

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 panel joins and the variations in the wood grain can be seen clearly in x-ray and the wide grain of the English board (board C) is evident (see x-ray mosaic 01). The narrow top board (board A) has a very close grain. There is an even layer of relatively dense paint, applied horizontally, over the top board. The paint surface on this board appears featureless, with no evident detail apart from the faint edge of the curtain restoration. The feathers on the top of the hat cannot be seen at all in x-ray and the detail on this board appears to be of a later date. On the second board from the top (board B), the dark area visible just above the head, to left of the large diamond jewel, appears to be part of the hat which is visible on the painting to the right of the jewel. Before the last restoration a crown was painted on top of the head, which extended over the top board, but this was removed as it was evidently not original. To the left and to the right of the head, two filled holes can be seen at the top edge of the second board but there are no corresponding holes in the adjacent top board. It is possible that the holes were made when a previous board was attached at the top, or were made by a fixing to attach the panel to a framework or other support. The broad brushstrokes of the priming layer on the rest of the panel can be seen under the flesh paint and under the light part of the ruff. Paint losses along the panel joins are clearly visible in x-ray.

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 using infrared reflectography. The reserves left for elements of the costume are clearly visible with infrared reflectography, such as the pearl necklaces and bows, which indicates that there was some drawing in a medium which has not been detected (see DIRR 01). The broad brushstrokes of the priming can be seen, and are particularly noticeable in the face. The painting of the feather headdress cannot be compared with the rest of the paint surface and it is clear that this is not original.

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 January 2011.

The panel was prepared with a single layer of thick chalk ground, which appears beige in cross section due to the glue medium. The chalk ground contains a very small proportion of carbon black particles.
Above the chalk ground there is a fine pale greyish brown priming made with lead white and also small particles of carbon black, red ochre and yellow ochre. This is unusually translucent for a priming layer. It is clear that the uppermost board is not original. It is prepared with a chalk ground and a lead white priming but the paint layers contain modern pigments, mostly chrome green and yellow, and Prussian blue.

Sample 12: Cross-section shows that the flesh paint contains lead white with occasional red and black particles, and some blue.

Sample 8: Dispersion shows that the red hair is painted mainly with red ochre (finely ground with a few slightly rod-like particles), and lead white, a little carbon black and yellow ochre.

The white around the pearls is lead white with some charcoal black, azurite and smalt. The white lace is painted over the original green paint. The grey dress contains lead white with smalt as well as carbon black.
Sample 15: Cross-section shows that the gold decoration on the red flower jewels, on the sleeve on the left, consists of a lower layer of lead-tin yellow with vermilion followed by a layer with a higher proportion of bright lead-tin yellow and only a little vermilion.
Sample 13: The blue flower jewel on the sleeve on the left contains lead white and Prussian blue, which can be seen in the dispersion. This is evidently overpaint and the Prussian blue has a defined form which is more likely to date from the eighteenth century. However, there are occasional particles that might be smalt, which are very likely to be traces of the original paint layer.
Sample 14: In dispersion the red flower jewel on the sleeve on the left contains both large and fine particles of red ochre and traces of red lake. The finer particles might be restoration but the larger particles and the red lake are likely to be the original red mixture.
Sample 10: In dispersion, the original black paint from the left side of the skirt, next to the gold embroidery, contains lamp black, azurite and finely ground red ochre, and possibly yellow lake. Some pigments in the dispersion may be associated with the nearby gold embroidery.

The dark green between the pearls of the headdress contains large blue particles that appear to be azurite, and possibly some lead-tin yellow. The pure green glaze of the original paint surface (beneath the green overpaint) can be seen beneath the red and yellow clasp at the end of the pearls on the headdress.
Sample 6: Cross-section from the feather beneath the base of the top pearl in the headdress. Traces of the pure green glaze of the curtain could be seen below gold coloured paint containing lead-tin yellow and vermilion. Restoration is present above the gold paint.
Sample 7: Cross-section from the white feather on the headdress (non-original paint on the top board). Above the chalk ground there appear to be a number of later layers. The top layer contains a fine white which appears to be zinc white and is evidently restoration.

Sky and sea
The original sky contains smalt and crimson lake, and the faint landscape along the horizon is azurite.
Sample 4: Cross-section taken from the paint on the the non-original top board. Shows a chalk ground with a white layer over it, and a blue layer that is probably Prussian blue, which is evidently restoration.
Sample 3: Cross-section from the sky below the top join. This shows the chalk ground, the priming layer, fragments of the original sky paint with smalt and crimson lake. Over this there is a thick greenish blue layer of restoration with fine particles of red, blue, white and black.
Sample 5: Cross-section from the sky in the upper right shows the original sky paint containing smalt, with overpaint layers over it.

Green Curtain
The green curtain is heavily restored.
Sample 1: Sample from the curtain on the left shows two green paint layers. The original lower layer contains azurite, lead white, copper containing green (which appears to be malachite), and a little lead-tin yellow. The upper layer is restoration and contains chrome green pigments.
Sample 2: Taken from the paint on the top non-original board and shows priming with white and red lead, with many layers of nineteenth century restoration above, containing chrome yellow. The bottom two layers are green with fine particles of modern yellow and green, above these are two layers of brown paint, followed by a layer of varnish. Over the varnish is a layer of green paint, again with fine modern yellow and green particles.

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
Close examination of the paint surface and x-rays suggest that the narrow, uppermost board is not original (see X-ray). Surface examination suggests that the generally poor condition and appearance of the background is a result of overzealous cleaning, poor removal of past restoration and mechanical damage caused by poor handling and fluctuations in the display environment.

Preparation layers
The panel was prepared with a single layer of white chalk ground containing a very small amount of carbon black. Above this a pale greyish brown lead-based priming layer containing lead white, red ochre and carbon black, and some yellow ochre, was broadly applied. The priming is unusually translucent.

The face was thinly laid in using a pale flesh colour composed of lead white, charcoal black, earth pigments, vermilion, azurite and smalt. In areas of warm flesh tone, such as the cheeks, a second layer containing vermilion, lead white and charcoal black was applied. The flesh is reasonably thinly and flatly painted, allowing the streaky nature of the underlying priming to remain visible on the paint surface. The effect of the broadly applied priming layer is undoubtedly emphasised by abrasion to the flesh paint and visible restoration above. The hands are painted with a similar paint mixture, although they are warmer in tone.

The eyes were first defined above the flesh paint using a thin, medium-rich dark brown paint composed of earth pigments, red lake, lead white and vermilion (see micro 01). This appears to have been applied wet-in-wet to the flesh paint below, creating soft contours and fine eyelashes. The irises were then painted using the same mixed brown, with a higher proportion of red lake added. This was followed by the pupils, which contain less lead white and more black and red lake. The whites of the eyes were then applied using a mixture of lead white, charcoal black and a little earth pigment, azurite and vermilion.

The nose was defined using the same dark brown, medium-rich paint mixture as the eyes. Much of the original paint here has been lost, and is reinforced with modern restoration.

The lips were painted directly above the flesh paint, using an opaque mixture of lead white, vermilion and charcoal black. Above this, the lips were then defined using a rich red lake glaze, containing a little charcoal black and possibly some vermilion (see micro 03).

The hair has suffered from heavy abrasion and restoration. In many areas the original paint appears to be worn down to the priming layer. Where original paint can clearly be seen, it appears to have been thinly laid in directly above the priming, using a semi-transparent layer of orange/brown. This paint mixture contains red ochre, lead white, some charcoal black and yellow ochre. Above this, curls were applied wet-in-wet to the layer below, using fine brushstrokes of the same paint mixture, with a higher proportion of lead white added. The highlights appear to contain lead-tin yellow, probably some yellow ochre, and lead white (see micro 04).

Ruff and cuffs
The central, opaque part of the ruff appears to have been applied first. This was laid-in using a broadly applied, off-white layer directly above the priming and above this, a grey layer was very thinly applied, using a mixture of lead white, charcoal black and a little azurite and earth pigments. The grey layer is now heavily abraded. Above the grey, lead white was used to define the folds, outline and highlights in the ruff. The finely applied lace detail was added at a much later stage in the painting process above the costume, jewellery and background paint (see micro 08). The off-white mixture used to paint the lacework is composed of lead white with a little vermilion, red lake, charcoal black and smalt.

Black areas in the costume appear to have been partially cleaned and heavily restored, perhaps in multiple campaigns. The sleeves appear to have been broadly laid in at a similar stage to the ruff and cuffs, using a similar paint mixture. The patterns in the sleeves were then painted using a similar translucent brown paint mixture to the facial features. Above this, opaque highlights containing earth pigments, red lake, charcoal black and lead white were applied. The repeating sunburst embroidery on the sleeves contains lead-tin yellow, with vermilion and black, and pure lead-tin yellow for the highlights (see micro 18). Before painting the black areas of the dress, the pearls, jewels and bows were applied. The red bows were first painted using an opaque mixture of vermilion, red lead, lead white and charcoal black. Above this, a red lake and black glaze was used to create definition and shadows (see micro 12). Highlights and folds were then defined above using fine brushstrokes of lead white, black, vermilion and yellow ochre (or sienna). The jewels in the centre of the bows, and the bands of golden embroidery on the shoulders, skirt trim and bodice were achieved by utilising the priming layer as a mid-tone (see micro 11). Brushstrokes of lead-tin yellow and black dress paint were then applied above the exposed priming to create detail and an effect of gold thread. In areas of highlight, lead-tin yellow was used pure and also mixed with vermilion and black, to vary the tone of the paint. The purple bows on the dress were painted in a slightly different manner: first the shadows were applied, using a semi-transparent mixture of charcoal black, lead white, smalt and red lake. Above this, mid-tones and highlights were applied, using either lead-tin yellow, charcoal black and smalt or lead white, red lake, charcoal black and smalt (see micro 13 and micro 14).

The black parts of the dress were applied at a reasonably late stage. The black has suffered from considerable abrasion and restoration and is entirely overpainted in many areas. Despite this, isolated areas of original paint can seen seen using microscopy, particularly beneath the lace ruff. Examination of this area suggests that the original black was thinly applied directly above the priming, using a rich lamp black pigment with the addition of a little lead white, azurite and possibly yellow lake, and some finely ground red ochre (see Paint sampling). The blue floral jewels on the sleeves were strengthened with Prussian blue in the eighteenth century; the original blue pigment used has been identified as smalt (see Paint sampling).

Pearls in jewellery
When the black dress was applied, a clear reserve was left for the large pearl necklace. This is most clearly visible in the upper section of the necklace, beneath the lace ruff (see micro 15). Where the pearls have been more fully worked, for example over the costume below the ruff, it is clear that they were painted using a thin pale grey composed of lead white, azurite and charcoal black (see micro 16). Highlights were then added. At this stage some of the pearls were made larger and defined more clearly. The pearls in the hair were painted in a similar manner, with a reserve left for them when the hair was applied. Here the pearls contain both smalt and azurite pigments; highlights containing lead white and smalt were then added above.

The background has suffered extensive abrasion during previous cleaning campaigns and has been heavily restored with thin, glaze-like overpaint. Remnants of dark, opaque historic restoration also remain beneath the most recent restoration, particularly in the upper-right portion of sky and the red column (see micro 05). Despite the extent of non-original material present, small areas of original paint are visible using magnification. The original blue sky appears to have been applied using a mixture of lead white, smalt, a little black, earth pigments and red lake. Remnants of discoloured varnish are also visible in the interstices of the paint surface. The sea on the left-hand side was painted using a mixture of azurite, lead white, red lake and black pigments (see micro 09). After the sea was laid in, the boats were painted above. The pale passages of the ship's hull appear to have been thinly applied using a pale pink mixture of lead white, vermilion, and red lake, with the addition of a little black and smalt. The St George's flags were then applied using fine, soft brushstrokes of lead white and vermilion (see micro 10). The red column to the right of the Armada scene appears to have been applied after the curtain, using red ochre or vermilion and red lake. The general layer structure of this area is difficult to interpret due to the presence of multiple restoration campaigns.

The original green curtain appears to have been extensively scrubbed down to the level of the priming, and then overpainted with a modern green pigment containing chrome (see micro 07 and micro 20). However, it is clear in certain areas, that remnants of older restoration campaigns are present beneath the surface layer as well. Although it is possible that the existing yellow folds of the curtain follow those of the original beneath, it has not been possible to be certain. Despite the level of abrasion and restoration seen here, small areas of original green were observed beneath the sitter's ruff (see micro 06 and micro 08). This original green appears to be a mixture of azurite, lead white, a green containing copper (which appears to be malachite) and a little lead-tin yellow. In areas of deep shadow, a thin copper green glaze appears to have been applied above. See Paint sampling for the original paint layers and overpaint in the curtain.

Order of Construction
- Chalk ground
- Pale priming
- Face
- Ruff and cuffs laid in
- Sleeves laid in
- Pearls in hair laid in
- Hair
- Sky
- Sea
- Green curtain
- Red column and window ledge
- Bows and jewels on dress laid in
- Black dress (leaving a reserve for the pearl necklace)
- Lace ruff detail over dress
- Highlights on pearls in hair, necklace and dress
- Highlights on bows on dress and sleeves

Lead white, lamp black, charcoal black, earth pigments, yellow ochre, red ochre, smalt, azurite, lead-tin yellow, vermilion, red lead, red lake, malachite (probably), copper green glaze, yellow lake (possibly)

Changes in composition/pentimenti
Minor alterations were made to the size of some of the jewels and pearls during the painting process.

Restoration observations
The paint surface is heavily restored throughout, particularly in the background, black parts of the dress, the hair and flesh. A considerable amount of old restoration remains on the surface beneath the most recent campaign, making the interpretation of the original surface problematic.

Ultra violet examination (what's this? )

Ultra Violetclose

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

The curtain and the background appear dark in ultra violet light and are almost entirely repainted (see UV 01). There is a small pale area of sky at the top right which is not overpainted. The hair is also heavily restored. There are numerous small areas of retouching in the face which appear dark in ultra violet light. The sleeves and bows appear in good condition. The pink bows appear a little orange in ultra violet light, which indicates that the red lake may contain madder. The surface of the black skirt appears opaque where old varnish remains on the surface. The black skirt is heavily overpainted and was only partially cleaned due to the poor condition of the original paint beneath.


Frame type: Not original.

Frame date: Late 19th / early 20th century.