The colouring, almost luminescent in areas of the foliage, is highly reminiscent of Elizabethan 'limner' Nicholas Hilliard, as is the application of gold leaf...
Exploration is one of the defining characteristics of the Elizabethan age, and it is therefore surprising that so few painted portraits of explorers survive. The present work, painted in oils on paper and dated 1594, was recently discovered in France, and shows a young explorer proudly standing on the foreshore of a beach, with rocks encrusted with gold at his feet.
When Christopher Columbus, financed by Spain, first reached The New World in 1492, the potential rewards of colonisation and exploration reverberated throughout the courts of Europe; England, however, was somewhat slow to respond. Although arguably a strong and a powerful nation, a series of domestic issues persuaded successive monarchs to focus on establishing new trade routes, not colonies. Attempts were made as early as 1497 by Henry VII to find the Northwest Passage, a northern route around the European continent which would connect England with Asia for trade by sea, and although this was largely considered a failure, the knowledge accrued later accelerated English exploratory efforts.
It was the challenge of finding the Northwest Passage that led Martin Frobisher, later in 1574, to request a license to voyage north towards Asia, and in 1576 he set sail. Although failing to find the passage, Frobisher landed on Hall Island (now part of modern-day Canada), where one of his crew – Master Robert Garrard - picked up ‘a piece of black stone, much like to a sea coal in colour which by the weight seemed to be some kind of metal or mineral.’ Back in London, the rock was tested by a Venetian goldsmith who found it to contain a grain of gold. This discovery was hugely significant, and enabled Frobisher to secure further investment for a second and third voyage to exploit ‘the great riches of the mines of gold found in the new countries’. Although unfortunately for Frobisher (and his investors), the ‘great riches’ turned out to be little more than worthless rocks, the vague possibility of great wealth on foreign shores was enough to fire the imagination of ambitious entrepreneurs, and exploration soon became a pursuit of the wealthy merchant classes.
As well as the possibility of lucrative returns on an investment, exploration also was an opportunity to demonstrate ones bravery and masculinity. Exploration was by nature dangerous, and involved travelling vast distances by sea over long periods of time, relying on maps that were far from accurate. Those who succeeded naturally breathed a sigh of relief, and may have commemorated their achievements in literature or, as seen here, through portraiture.
The well-dressed young explorer in our portrait stands on the foreshore with his left hand on his hip and his right hand holding a halberd (a combination of spear and battle-axe). It is a pose of strength and defiance through which he adopts the guise of a conqueror. His intricately detailed helmet and shield are placed beneath a tree and symbolise strength, seriousness of purpose, and the subject’s willingness to fight for his cause. Coiled around the tree is ivy, symbolic of immortality, and is perhaps used here in reference to his survival through adverse circumstances. This sentiment is echoed in the small shield which hangs from a severed limb of the tree, bearing the Latin motto: 'non reiecienda reiecta' (‘that which has been rejected should not have been rejected'). It is a statement of achievement, and almost certainly refers to his conquering of a land previously ignored or rejected by others. He is congratulating himself, and quite rightly, for in the lower left corner near where he stakes his claim with the end of his halberd, are small rocks glistening with gold. The small rowing boat in the background to the left of the tree is presumably on-hand to carry the precious metal back to his larger boat (possibly a pinnace), moored just off the shore and proudly flying an English flag.
Compositionally and stylistically, numerous parallels can be drawn between the present work and the full-length limnings by English artist Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547-1619), painter to the Tudor court. The most striking similarity is the positioning of the subject, which bears a striking resemblance to Hilliard’s depiction of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland [National Maritime Museum, Greenwich], who instead holds a jousting weapon. Like the subject in our portrait, Cumberland is also shown beside a tree with armour placed beneath and a shield hanging from a branch. The colouring as well, which is almost luminescent in areas of the foliage, is highly reminiscent of Hilliard, as is the precise rendering of each leaf on the tree and the ivy that wraps around it. The application of gold leaf, used here to imitate tiny shimmering gold specks within the rocks, was also a technique familiar to Elizabethan ‘limners’, and would originally have been more conspicuous in this work.
These parallels have not escaped the notice of past scholars, and when it was sold at auction in 1924 by the Duke of Sutherland, it was attributed to Hilliard and the subject stated as Francis Drake. This erroneous identification of subject is not surprising, and many portraits depicting dashing, rakish young men from this period were assumed to depict the famous explorer. Unfortunately, the true identification of our subject remains a mystery, and whilst the names of many explorers and adventurous merchants from this period are known, their lack of recorded iconography makes a comparison of likenesses an impossible task.