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My Favourite Portrait by Fiona Shaw

Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait')
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
circa 1592
NPG 2561

Hugo Vickers


Taken from the Gallery Supporters’ Magazine, Face to Face
Issue 8, [Spring2004]
© National Portrait Gallery, London

On the Ground Floor Germaine Greer looks sideways at Doris Lessing, waiting a reply to a difficult question; neither takes prisoners! Jonathan Miller and Harold Pinter have taken themselves off to a corner to worry the problems of the cerebral, these the courtiers of our age held for a moment in living time. But up on the Second Floor one enters a different world and is shunted into the past by the astonishing presence of Elizabeth the First.

She pierces the lone visitor with her eye. Standing on the world she leans back into her boarded corset, her unmarried hand holding gloves, her giant dress a white firework display arctic, virginal but dazzling as if to exhaust you, to stop you looking at her head. Behind her the clouds give way to the worthy sky of ‘la Reine Soleil’. And there it is, her face, weary, sharp, sunken eyed, not as compassionate as the inscription claims, not as beautiful as those at the unveiling must have said, serious, temporal, lonely. All around her on the walls her courtiers celebrate their success in her. Philip Sidney, Walter Ralegh, Leicester and the fateful Essex about whom she admitted she was ‘too fond too fond’ before allowing him to be executed.

She is a real presence. For a moment you are with her and her complex world. She stares out jaded with state, life, or with the memory of her beloved but troublesome Essex. The heart takes no prisoners.

Fiona Shaw
Actress and writer


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