Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')
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Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
oil on canvas, circa 1592
95 in. x 60 in. (2413 mm x 1524 mm)
One of the most iconic images of Elizabeth I, which was commissioned as part of the lavish entertainments staged in her honour by Sir Henry Lee in 1592.
The portrait was probably commissioned by Sir Henry Lee. It was first recorded at Ditchley by Thomas Hearne in 1718 and subsequently by George Vertue in around 1726; it was likely to have been in the house since it was painted. The house passed from the Lee family to the Dillons in 1776 following the marriage of the 11th Viscount Dillon to Lady Charlotte Lee. The portrait was bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery by Harold Lee-Dillon, 17th Viscount Dillon, in 1932.
It is very likely that the portrait formed part of the lavish entertainments staged by Sir Henry Lee at Woodstock, where he was Lieutenant of the royal manor, and his own house, Ditchley, during Elizabeth I’s visit on progress in 1592. Elizabeth stayed at Woodstock between 18 and 23 September, and the entertainments took place over two days: 20 September at Woodstock and 21 September at Ditchley. On the first day, the character of the Page requested that the queen:
Draw near and take a view of every table
In them no doubts some secrets are concealed
Which if you will (for who denies you able)
Cannot but by your wisdom be revealed
The tables were possibly the portraits of nobles that had been used in the entertainment staged by Lee at Woodstock in 1575, and the newly commissioned image of Elizabeth standing on a globe with her feet resting on Oxfordshire would have formed a triumphant conclusion to the sequence.
The allegorical entertainment celebrated the Queen’s forgiveness of Lee for living with his mistress Anne Vavasour and the inscriptions on the painting link to this theme. They can be translated as ‘She gives and does not expect’, ‘She can but does not take revenge’, and ‘In giving back she increases’ [DA[T NE]C [E]XPECTAT (left); POTEST NEC VLCISCITVR (right); REDDENDO [AUGET] (bottom right).
A sonnet on the theme of the sun, the symbol of the monarch, refers to Elizabeth as the ‘Prince of Light’. Although part of the sonnet was lost when the right-hand edge was cut down, the rhythm and rhyme-scheme means that it can be reconstructed:
The prince of light. The Sonne by whom thing[s live]
Of heaven the glorye, and of earthe the g[race]
Hath no such glorye as [of] grace to g[ive]
Where Correspondencie May have no plac[e]
Thunder the Ymage of that power dev[ine]
Which all to nothinge with a worde ca[
Is to the earthe when it doth ayre res[ign]
Of power the Scepter, not of wra[t]h [t]h[e ...]
This yle of such both grace [and] power [...]
The boundles ocean [,..][f]lye[...]em[...]
P[...] p[r]ince] [...] thei[...]ll-[...]
Rivers of thanckes retourne for Springes [..]
Riv[er]s of thanckes still to that oc[ean flow]
Where grace is grace above, power po[wer below]
The map is derived from Christopher Saxton’s map of England and Wales published in 1583. An armillary sphere hangs from Elizabeth’s ear as a symbolic reference to her divine power and an emblem of the Accession Day Tilts, and also appears in Anthonis Mor’s portrait of Lee of 1568 (NPG 2095). The jewels sewn onto her gown are possibly those mentioned in the 1587 inventory of her jewels, as is the girdle.
Notes on attribution
Although there is no documentary record of the commission, this portrait can be confidently attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Gheeraerts did not take a consistent approach to the preparatory layers when working on panel or canvas supports but the draughtsmanship and paint handling technique compares closely to other works attributed to the artist, such as the full-length portrait of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (NPG 4985). The italic hand in the sonnet is also comparable to a number of other works, including Lady Scudamore; for example, the form of the ‘w’ and the comparison of the letter forms in ‘still’ and ‘till’.
This is one of the earliest surviving paintings attributed to Gheeraerts. Sir Henry Lee was one of his major patrons and subsequently stood as godfather to the artist’s son Henry, and commissioned a group of full-length portraits of himself and other knights in their Garter robes from the artist (Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers, London, NPG 4985, NPG 2562)
Justification for dating
The provenance of the painting strongly suggests that it was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee. The dress and age of the sitter date the painting to the 1590s and therefore the most likely motivation for the commission was the queen’s visit to Woodstock and Ditchley in 1592. This is supported by the deliberate placement of the queen’s feet in Oxfordshire, close to Ditchley. The materials and techniques in use are entirely consistent with works from this period.
The painting has been cut down along the bottom and the right-hand side at some point. All the original tacking edges have been lost, but cusping in the canvas weave along the top and left-hand side suggests that these edges have only been trimmed by a small amount. The painting has suffered extensive damage and flaking. The sky is very damaged, especially on the left-hand side where more than one campaign of overpaint covers many areas. The rays of the sun are not clear in normal light due to the extent of the damage but can be seen using infrared reflectography.
The portrait was painted on a wide piece of medium weight, plain weave canvas that compares closely with the canvas used for a portrait of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (NPG 4985), although it is not a direct match. The canvas was prepared with a cool grey priming that is visible beneath the flesh in the face and hands. The painting method is orderly and straightforward, with the fine attention to detail in many elements applied last, such as in the globe and in the jewels on the dress. The flesh appears to have been executed freely and rapidly. The first layers for the hair and costume were broadly blocked in, with the modelling layers and texture applied over these layers. The paint consistency varies between fluid and thickly applied detail and there are some passages of wet-in-wet blending. Azurite is present in several of the paint mixtures, including the flesh paint in the hands. The cheeks contain a high proportion of vermilion and the tones in the face are slightly distorted because the red lake has probably faded. The smalt used in the paint mixture in the sky has discoloured considerably.
Drawing and transfer technique
No underdrawing was detected during surface examination or using infrared reflectography. It is notable that Elizabeth’s likeness in the portrait is similar to that seen in a miniature by Gheeraert’s brother-in-law, Isaac Oliver, which was probably intended to be used as a pattern by other artists (Victoria and Albert Museum P.8-1940).
Other known versions
No other versions of this portrait by Gheeraerts are known, and there are no copies that replicate the whole composition. Copies derived from the portrait include:
- Blickling Hall, ¾ length
- Pitti Palace, ¾ length
- Burghley House (Marquess of Exeter), bust length
- Knole (Brown Gallery set), bust length
- The Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo, North Carolina, bust length
- Government Art Collection, ¾ length
- Wimpole Hall (National Trust), bust length
Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d: The inventories of the Wardrobe of the Robes prepared in July 1600, 1988, p. 43
Viscount Dillon, A Catalogue of Paintings in possession of the Rt Hon Viscount Dillon at Ditchley, 1908, pp. 20-21 (No. 26)
Goldring, Elizabeth, ‘Portraiture, Patronage, and the Progresses: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the Kenilworth Festivities of 1575’, in Archer, Jayne Elisabeth, Elizabeth Goldring, Sarah Knight, eds, The Progresses, Pageants and Entertainments of Queen Elizabeth I, 2007, pp. 163-188
Goldring, Elizabeth, Faith Eales, Elizabeth Clarke, Jayne Elizabeth Archer, eds., John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth: A New Edition of the Early Modern Sources, 5 vols, 2014, III, pp. 680-705
Hearn, Karen, ed., Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, 1995, pp. 89-90
Piper, David, and Malcolm Rogers, The English Face, 1992, pp. 49 and 51
Rae, Caroline, ‘Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, John de Critz, Robert Peake and William Larkin: A comparative study’, in T. Cooper, A. Burnstock, M. Howard and E. Town, eds, Painting in Britain 1500-1630: Production, Influences and Patronage, 2015, pp. 171-9
Rogers, Malcolm, ‘Likeness and likelihood’, Times Literary Supplement, 14 August 1981
Strong, Roy, ‘Elizabethan Painting: An Approach Through Inscriptions – III Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 105, No. 721, April 1963, pp. 149-157
Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, London, 1969, pp. 104-105
Strong, Roy, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth, 1987, p. 135
Strong, Roy, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry, 1999, p. 154
‘Elizabeth to Victoria: British Portraits from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery’, State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia, 2016
‘The Face of Britain’, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2015
‘Les Tudors’, Musée du Luxembourg, 2015
‘The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered’, National Portrait Gallery, London, 2014-2015
‘Great Britons: Treasures from the National Portrait Gallery, London’, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA, 2007
‘Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630’, Tate Gallery, London, 1995-1996
‘The Elizabethan Image’, Tate Gallery, London, 1969-1970
‘Exhibition of National Portraits’, South Kensington Museum, 1868
‘Art Treasures of the United Kingdom’, Manchester, 1857
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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.
There has been a history of flaking and there is extensive restoration, much of it poorly executed, particularly in the background. There are unfilled losses, unpainted losses and raised craquelure. However, the paint is structurally in good condition. The inscriptions are very damaged and the right side of the canvas has been trimmed at some point, with the loss of the right side of the cartouche. It is possible that a little canvas has been lost at the other edges but there is no evidence for this. The canvas has an old glue-paste lining. The lining tacking edges have been strip-lined in recent years. The stretcher is in good condition.
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.
Last date of tree ring: n/a
The painting is on a canvas support.
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 medium weight plain canvas weave is very evident in x-ray and can be compared with the canvas weave used in a portrait of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (NPG 4985). Cusping can be seen at the top and left-hand edges but not at the right-hand and lower edges (see x-ray mosaic 01). The original tacking edges have been cut off. The stretcher members are evident in x-ray.
A technique used to observe the layers beneath the paint surface which can reveal underdrawing and changes to the initial design.
No evidence of underdrawing was visible using infrared reflectography (see DIRR detail 01). The losses in the paint layer are clear. The rays coming from the sun on the left-hand side of the painting are visible in infrared; this is not so clear when viewing the painting in normal lighting due to the amount of damage and restoration in this area.
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 for analysis in January 2012.
The canvas was prepared with a chalk ground. Above this layer, there is a fairly substantial pale priming, consisting mostly of white lead with the occasional very fine black particle that is probably lamp black.
Hand and fan
Sample 1a: Cross-section from the junction of the hand and the fan shows the chalk ground and lead white priming, a thin layer of flesh paint, and the red frill round a pearl on the edge of the fan. The flesh paint contains lead white, carbon black and vermilion. The red frill is painted with vermilion with a red lake glaze that fluoresces pink in ultra violet light, which suggests that it is madder lake.
The outer edge of the dress may have been defined with smalt. There is no underlying layer over the priming and the dress paint is applied over the pale grey priming.
Sample 3: Cross-section from the grey shadow between pearls on the dress hem above the shoe on the left shows the chalk ground, lead white priming, and the pale grey upper paint layer.
Jewels on the dress
The red jewels are painted with vermilion with a red lake glaze, and highlights on the gold are painted with lead-tin yellow. The pearls have a pale white outline with a grey mixture in the shadow; the mid-tone contains azurite and the highlight contains lead white and azurite. The green on the jewel nearest the cuff on the sleeve on the left is pure copper green, not an azurite mix. The pale blue jewel on the shoulder on the left contains a few particles of smalt.
In microscopy the sea appears to have been painted in first, with the map painted on top.
Sample 5: Cross-section shows the chalk ground, the pale priming, and above this there is a fine, translucent blue-tinted layer (probably a laying in layer). This is followed by a layer with large particles of azurite, a few rounded black particles and a very small amount of lead white. Above this layer there is a thinner darker blue layer (containing more finely ground azurite and black), which might be a shadow modelling the blue.
Lettering on map
Sample 4: Cross-section shows the pale priming, with a fairly thick layer of blue containing large particles of azurite. Above this, there is a thinner layer of paint with lead-tin yellow and a red pigment particle.
Dispersion confirmed the presence of azurite and lead-tin yellow.
Sample 2: Cross-section shows the pale priming with a thin semi-translucent layer above it that contains discoloured smalt particles, which explains the slightly flocculent look of the paint in the sky. Dispersion confirmed the present of smalt and lead white.
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 painting has suffered extensive damage and flaking. Dislodged flakes of paint, mainly blue, are scattered across the surface and these have adhered to other parts of the painting, probably during the lining process.
The canvas has been prepared with a chalk ground. There is a pale priming, which mostly consists of lead white, with occasional fine black particles that are probably lamp black.
The cool grey priming is visible beneath the flesh of the face and the hands (see micro 03 and micro 10). The flesh paint applied over this layer contains lead white mixed with finely ground black, vermilion, red lake and a small amount of yellow (see micro 11). In the hands, a small amount of azurite is also present. The cheeks contain a higher proportion of vermilion. There is very little red pigment visible in other areas of the flesh, and it seems likely that the red lake used in the flesh has faded. The fingers have been outlined in red lake, which now has a dull brown appearance. The flesh paint is very thinly applied with very little texture. On the fingers there are some highlights made using paint of a creamy consistency, but overall the flesh appears to have been executed quite loosely and quickly. The shadows in the flesh and the veins on the temple have been defined using a thin wash of black pigment. There are dark lines on the décolletage of the sitter that are difficult to see through the microscope and do not show up in either infrared reflectography or x-ray; it is unclear what the purpose of these lines are, or if they are original.
The irises have been painted in a translucent brown paint with stokes of grey loosely blended in (see micro 01). The pupil has been painted with a dense black paint, over which an opaque grey paint containing earth pigments and opaque red has been thinly applied. The underlayer used for the whites of the eyes contains a small amount of finely ground yellow, red and blue pigments mixed with lead white. Thicker bodied lead white paint has been applied over this layer for the highlights. Lead white has also been used for the highlight on the irises; this appears to have been applied while the lower layer was still wet as the lead white has picked up some of the paint below. A stiff tool has been used to drag through the wet paint on the eye on the right. The upper eyelids have been defined with a warm translucent brown paint, which has been reinforced in areas with later restoration. The flesh paint around the eye has been dragged across this brown line for the eyelashes, creating scored lines of paint. Some very fine lines of thin black paint have also been used to emphasise the lashes.
The lips have been painted in vermilion with lead white blended into the lower lip to depict the fall of light and the modelling (see micro 03). A red lake glaze has been used for the parting of the lips and applied while the lower layer was still wet, creating some wet-in-wet blending. The red lake has been feathered at the edge of the mouth. A small highlight containing lead white and yellow pigment has been added at the corners of the mouth.
The hair has been blocked out with a thin, translucent brown paint that is now very worn and abraded. Shadows have been applied over this layer to create modelling and texture. Thin strokes of a thicker yellow paint have been added to indicate the highlights (see micro 04).
Headdress and winged veil
A reserve has been left in the hair for the large red ruby on the headdress while the smaller jewels have been painted over the hair. The basic shapes of the jewels have been painted in first using either black or red lake mixed with white, depending on the stone. The rubies have fluid strokes of vermilion and both the black and red jewels have lead white highlights applied while the lower layers were still wet. The gold settings are painted in lead-tin yellow mixed with a small amount of red lead (see micro 05). The pearls have been painted last and have a small amount of azurite mixed into the lead white highlight. The jewels on the wings have been handled in a similar manner. The gold settings have been painted in orange earth colours with lead-tin yellow highlights. The gold settings for the rubies have strokes of pure azurite applied on top in order to imitate enamel. The black jewels have details of red lake on the gold settings as well as small daubs of azurite blended with lead white around the edges of the gold (see micro 07). It is unclear if these are meant to be highlights, enamel or small semi-precious stones. The drop pearls on the wings have been thinly painted, allowing the smalt particles to show through from the layer beneath (see Sky section below).
Lace collar and rose
The folds of the fabric on the collar have been blocked in with a broad brush. Grey and white paint have been blended to create highlights and shadow, and large particles of smalt are also present in the paint mixture. The detail of the lace has been applied on top of this layer in lead white mixed with a small amount of smalt (see micro 13). The paint consistency of the lace varies between fluid strokes and thickly applied detail. A thin grey paint has been used to indicate lines of shadow in the fabric and in the holes of the lace. The roses attached to the collar have been quickly but skilfully painted (see micro 12). The petals are painted in lead white mixed with a small amount of red lake. A red lake glaze has been applied over the light petals, giving them a deep pink tone. There are also a few particles of blue mixed into the red lake. The centre of the rose has been marked out with earth pigments and a few daubs of lead-tin yellow. The leaves have been painted with a pigment mixture containing lead-tin yellow mixed with copper green and a blue pigment, which is either azurite or smalt.
The white fabric of the petticoat, farthingale, bodice and sleeves has been painted in lead white mixed with black and finely ground smalt. The fabric has been simply and quickly executed, using differing proportions of black and lead white to mark in the folds. The highlights of the satin are painted in a thick lead white paint applied in short horizontal lines. Darker horizontal strokes of grey paint mark areas of shadow. The puffs of fabric decorating the dress are thinly painted in fluid white and grey paint. Thin brown paint has been used to mark shadow and create the effect of raised fabric. The shadowed area of satin glimpsed at the back of the dress contains a high proportion of smalt. Due to degradation of the pigment, this area now appears brown but would originally have been a more vibrant blue colour. The red embroidered fabric on the back of the gown and sleeves has been laid in with a transparent dull red paint, which consists of an orange pigment mixed with red lake and black (see micro 16). The pattern has been applied over this layer in lead-tin yellow and an opaque grey. A red lake glaze has been applied as a final layer after the pearl necklace was painted. The dress has three types of jewelled button sewn on, with either black diamonds, rubies or clusters of pearls attached (see micro 18). The gold settings appear to be enamelled, with small strokes of red lake and copper green glazes as well as an opaque blue (see micro 17). The handling of the buttons is similar to the jewels on the winged veil and shows close attention to detail.
The string of pearls around the sitter’s neck was the last element of the costume to be painted. In the décolletage a vertical stroke of paint in the flesh marks out where the left-hand string of pearls will fall. The jewels have been simply painted in a thin warm grey paint layer, with two quick brushstrokes forming each circle. A soft yellow brushstroke outlines the bottom of the pearl with a white highlight forming the top (see micro 14). A thick bodied lead white paint has been used for the highlight at the centre of each pearl and many have azurite mixed into the highlight. A thin brown paint has been used to convincingly indicate the shadow cast by the necklace.
The red ribbon of the fan appears to have been painted before the surrounding costume. It has been painted using a mixture of vermilion, red lake, black and lead white, with a red lake glaze applied over the top. Earth colours have been used for the handle of the fan with fine details of lead white and lead-tin yellow used for patterning and highlights (see micro 21). The decorative folded fabric of the fan has been very convincingly painted; it has been blocked in with a pale brown paint, with darker brown marking the shadows of the folds. Grey paint has then been used for the embroidered pattern.
The handling of the globe shows the same attention to detail that can be seen in many elements of this painting. Beneath many areas of the map there appears to be a layer of azurite mixed with lead white. The counties of England have been painted in different colours: the green is made of a mixture of azurite mixed with lead-tin yellow; the pink and pale blue areas are painted in mixtures of azurite, finely ground vermilion and red lake in varying proportions. The rivers have been painted on top of the land in a brilliant blue azurite, which has also been used for the sea. The buildings and cathedrals have been painted in vermilion mixed with lead white, with details carefully applied in pure vermilion and a purple glaze containing red lake and possibly smalt (see micro 20). The lettering on the globe is painted in a warm black paint. There are no signs of scoring or ruled lines to mark the position of the lettering. The ships and sea monster in the surrounding sea have been painted with details barely visible to the naked eye.
The sky is very badly damaged, especially the blue on the left-hand side, which has more than one campaign of overpaint covering many areas. The blue pigment appears to be a finely ground smalt that has deteriorated. This can clearly be seen on the left-hand side of the winged veil, which now appears brown (see micro 06). Presumably this was originally painted as a translucent material through which the blue of the sky could be seen. The deterioration in this area of the veil is more pronounced as there is very little lead white mixed in with the smalt. On the right-hand side the dark sky has been painted in earth pigments mixed with black and lead white with a small amount of opaque red. The lightening sky has been quickly painted in lead-tin yellow mixed with lead white and orange earth pigments. Large transparent particles are visible in this paint mixture that may be related to the formation of lead soaps.
Cartouche and inscriptions
It appears that the cartouche was planned at an early stage in the painting process and a reserve was left; abrasion in this area shows the white preparation layers rather than the paint mixture used for the sky. The border has been painted using earth pigments with a small amount of lead-tin yellow mixed in for the highlights. The inscription has been painted in lead-tin yellow and there is no evidence of scored or drawn lines to mark the position of the lettering (see micro 09). The inscriptions in the sky are painted in lead-tin yellow mixed with lead white and a small amount of red lead. The inscription on the left side is very badly damaged and strengthened with later overpaint (see micro 08 and micro 15). An incised line is visible at the bottom of the inscription, although the letters have been painted slightly lower than this.
Order of construction
- Chalk ground
- Underlayers in the face
- Fan and ribbon
- Costume and jewels
- Pearl necklace
Azurite, smalt, vermilion, red lake, red lead, copper green glaze, lead-tin yellow, earth pigments, lead white, carbon black, lamp black, madder lake
There is extensive restoration in the sky, with several campaigns of overpaint, much of which is poorly executed, particularly in the background. The rays of the sun are not clear in normal light due to the amount of damage and restoration, but can be seen more clearly using infrared reflectography. There are several areas of restored paint loss in the costume.
A method which helps to reveal past restoration and the extent of varnish layers.
In ultra violet light the extensive retouching in the background is visible as darker areas on the surface (see UV 01). There are also scattered retouchings in the skirt and the hair has been strengthened. A red lake glaze that has been used in many areas fluoresces a bright pink/orange, which suggests the pigment is madder based.
See this portrait
On display at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA
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