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Concealed and Revealed: The Changing Faces of Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown continental artist
circa 1575
NPG 2082

Issue 33
Taken from the Face to Face newsletter

In 2007 the National Portrait Gallery began a major research project, Making Art in Tudor Britain, with the aim of using scientific analysis and art-historical research to find out more about the Tudor and Jacobean collections. Now in its fourth year, the project, led by 16th Century Curator Tarnya Cooper, has already proved to be very successful and a number of important discoveries have been made. A new display focuses on research undertaken on four portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. It provides an opportunity for visitors to see these very different portraits of the queen, three of which are not usually on display, and to learn about the recent findings.

All of the portraits in this display have changed in some way since they were first created. Advanced scientific techniques, such as paint sampling and infra-red reflectography, have helped us to unlock clues to their original appearance. For instance, paint sampling on the most well-known of the four, the ‘Darnley’ portrait, has revealed that the now brown pattern on the queen’s dress would once have been crimson, and her extremely pale complexion would originally have been much rosier. The latter indicates that the common assumption that Elizabeth had very pale features is largely a myth, true only for the later part of her reign when we know that she did wear pale makeup. X-ray examination of another of the featured portraits has revealed how an early seventeenth-century panel painting of Elizabeth was completely painted over in the eighteenth century to ‘prettify’ the queen in keeping with contemporary standards of beauty and style. Several other portraits of Elizabeth I exist that were similarly altered in the eighteenth century, indicating a posthumous revival of interest in her at this much later date.

Queen Elizabeth I
by Unknown artist
early 17th century with 18th century overpainting
NPG 542

Perhaps the most intriguing of the discoveries highlighted relates to a portrait that has very rarely been exhibited in the Gallery. This portrait of Elizabeth, created in the 1580s, has been painted over an unfinished portrait of an entirely different sitter. Losses to the paint surface have made this other face partially visible. The identity of the first sitter remains a mystery but this discovery indicates that sixteenth-century wooden panels were sometimes reused and recycled. Analysis has also revealed that a coiled serpent held by the queen, now visible on the surface, was part of the original design for Elizabeth’s portrait, but was painted out by the artist shortly afterwards. The serpent may have been intended to symbolise the queen’s intelligence or prudence, but at some stage during the painting process a decision was made not to include this rather ambiguous emblem. Although surface abrasion has made the outline of the snake visible to the naked eye, scientific analysis has provided us with more detailed information about how it would originally have looked, allowing us to re-create the original appearance of the work.

This display highlights just some of the findings of Making Art in Tudor Britain.

Catherine Daunt
Assistant Curator


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