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Face masks not only saved time but made up for the impossibility of painting the Queen from life for each new commission.

Elizabeth I understood the power of portraiture better than almost any other English monarch. Like all the Tudors, she knew well the value of making her subjects aware of her identity. Her grandfather, Henry VII, was the first monarch to put his own accurate portrait on the English coinage, while her father, Henry VIII, seized on Holbein’s ability to present himself as a strong and majestic ruler in numerous official portraits. So Elizabeth too mobilised her own image, emboldened and reinforced with expensive costumes and sumptuous jewels, as a symbol of royal authority. Above all, such portraits were a demonstration that, despite being a woman, Elizabeth was the natural and legitimate ruler of England.

The present work was painted in the 1580s when Elizabeth’s portraiture was nearing the height of its visual splendour. The contrast with Elizabeth’s earlier portraiture is striking. In the first portrait of her as Queen, the ‘Clopton’ portrait of 1558, Elizabeth is shown with conspicuous piety....

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Elizabeth I understood the power of portraiture better than almost any other English monarch. Like all the Tudors, she knew well the value of making her subjects aware of her identity. Her grandfather, Henry VII, was the first monarch to put his own accurate portrait on the English coinage, while her father, Henry VIII, seized on Holbein’s ability to present himself as a strong and majestic ruler in numerous official portraits. So Elizabeth too mobilised her own image, emboldened and reinforced with expensive costumes and sumptuous jewels, as a symbol of royal authority. Above all, such portraits were a demonstration that, despite being a woman, Elizabeth was the natural and legitimate ruler of England.

The present work was painted in the 1580s when Elizabeth’s portraiture was nearing the height of its visual splendour. The contrast with Elizabeth’s earlier portraiture is striking. In the first portrait of her as Queen, the ‘Clopton’ portrait of 1558, Elizabeth is shown with conspicuous piety. She wears a relatively simple black dress and holds a religious book in her hand. This portrayal accords well with what we know to be Elizabeth’s virtuous, even frugal youthful character.

But as her reign progressed Elizabeth’s portraiture became increasingly outré. Each portrait outdid the last with ever more elaborate changes in costume, pose, composition and jewellery, a progression matched by Elizabeth’s increasing addiction to expensive jewels. The process culminates in the over-indulgent, oversized, almost absurd example of the ‘Ditchley’ portrait [National Portrait Gallery], in which Elizabeth is shown full length, bestriding the earth, as bolts of lightning strike dramatically through the sky behind her. Her face is small, aged, even ugly, and overwhelmed by the rest of the painting. Elizabeth the person is subsumed by Elizabeth the icon.

And this was precisely the intention. They key to understanding Elizabeth’s portraiture lies in a recognition of her political vulnerability. Female monarchs in the sixteenth century were rare enough. Unmarried female monarchs were unheard of. Her image, therefore, could not stress traditional female charms; beauty, grace, fertility. In fact, it had to stress the opposite. From the late 1570s onwards, when it became clear that she would not marry, Elizabeth was effectively de-sexed. She was portrayed as a virtuous emblem of state, the Virgin Queen forsaking marriage for the good of the kingdom. It was therefore not enough for Elizabeth to rely on likeness alone in her portraiture. She certainly could not be portrayed in the demur, usually seated, manner of her sister Mary, supported as she was by her marriage to Philip of Spain. And, of course, Elizabeth was unable to rely on sheer physical presence in her portraits, as her father done. Thus her portraits came to rely on bejewelled and bulky costumes – ‘Gloriana’ – for the projection of majesty.


The production of Elizabeth’s portraits followed well established practices. A standardized face ‘pattern’ or ‘mask’ was used, as has been the case in this example which utilises a pattern taken form the ‘Darnley’ portrait painted c.1575 by an unknown hand [National Portrait Gallery, London]. Face masks not only saved time but made up for the impossibility of painting the Queen from life for each new commission. Masks were also used to adhere to the stringent, if unofficial, rules surrounding the production of the Queen’s image. She preferred, for example, to have no shadows across her face, and hence the stark, bright appearance of her features. The pose and costume would then have been painted with greater artistic freedom. Subtle changes would have been introduced in each portrait, so that the dependence on standard facial types did not give rise to identical portraits of the Queen.

The artist of our work was familiar with the latest fashions or at least had access to pattern books which could have provided these crucial insights. Black and white were colours associated with the Queen and the artist of this work has bedecked the black fabric with exquisite gold jewels and pearls. Almost every inch of Elizabeth’s dress is decorated. Small ribbons tied in a bow, each with a diamond or ruby at the centre, line the shoulders of the dress with four further bows running down the centre. A long string of pearls adorns Elizabeth’s neck and are fastened on her right breast in a manner similar to that observed in the ‘Sieve’ portrait by Quentin Mestys the younger painted c.1583. On her left breast Elizabeth proudly shows an impressive gold pendant inset with a huge table-cut diamond foiled black and a large pearl suspended beneath. This jewel likewise appears in the ‘Sieve’ portrait and its basic design appears to have been adapted by numerous artists thereafter. Three further pendant pearls are worn in Elizabeth’s hair which is surmounted by an elaborate hairpiece decorated with pearls and diamonds from which hangs a fine gauze veil. The delicacy of the veil is echoed in the gauze sleeves which protect the intricate gold embroidery beneath. The finely embroidered wide lace ruff Elizabeth is shown wearing is typical of 1580s court fashion and epitomizes the unrelenting extravagances of the late Elizabethan court.

Recent x-ray analysis has revealed that our portrait of Elizabeth was painted over the top of another image a nobleman (fig.1). The style of costume worn by the man suggests that it was painted around 1560, probably by an artist with Netherlandish training. Due to the cost of oak panels, it was not unheard of for artists to reuse them, sometimes on multiple occasions. It may be the case that the person who commissioned the first portrait never paid the artist, or maybe they fell from favour and their likeness was considered too risky to display.

According to family tradition, this portrait was owned by Thomas Sydenham (d.1609), second son of John Sydenham of Brimpton and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Humphrey Audley. Thomas Sydenham settled at Westowe in the parish of Lawrence-Lydiard in Somerset and married Elizabeth, daughter of William Cross of Charlynch in the same county. The portrait is then said to have been bought in 1825 by the Rev. Richard Symes, a Prebendary of Wells, Somerset whose mother Betty Symes (née Sydenham) was the last of the Sydenham branch of Westowe. Whether it was bought by Symes or inherited is unclear, although we know it then remained in the Alford family – Symes’s nephew being Charles Richard Alford – and was presumably amongst the ‘…portraits and many interesting relics of both the Symes and Sydenham families’ which were in the possession of Charles Richard Alford’s son, Josiah George Alford, Hon. Canon of Bristol, in 1908.[1] In 1983 the portrait was then sold by the Alford family in a major sale of English Renaissance treasures staged by Sotheby’s.

[1] Alford, J.G, (1908) Alford Family Notes, Ancient and Modern, London, p.136

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500 Years of British Art