The wrinkly Elizabeth I

February 14 2013

Image of The wrinkly Elizabeth I

Picture: Telegraph

I feel I ought to point out a few things about the 'newly discovered' portrait of Elizabeth I doing the rounds, which has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The fact that it shows Elizabeth with wrinkles has been cited as evidence of its extreme rarity. From The Telegraph:

[...] Thomas Herron, an author and English professor at East Carolina University, noted that the reason for the portrait’s obscurity may lie in Elizabeth’s efforts to control her image.

And according to Anna Riehl, author of The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Queen Elizabeth I the [...] portrait is a "rare exception in not covering up the queen's flaws”.

A 1563 draft of Royal Proclamation attempted to regulate the production and circulation of the Queen's portraits, and a 1596 order to the Privy Council commanded public officers "to aid the Queen's Sergeant Painter in seeking out unseemly portraits which were to her 'great offence' and therefore to be defaced and no more portraits to be produced except as approved by [the] Sergeant Painter."

While Herron points out that “the decrees don't specify ‘ageing’ portraits or even comment on the queen's own looks in any way”, many paintings of the time presented an eternally youthful Elizabeth. Herron also notes that visitors at her court commented upon the queen’s advanced age by the 1580s and 90s - as well as her dignified and benevolent disposition. He further observed that visitors offered less flattering descriptions.

In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones makes this conclusion about the painting:

In the new, unvarnished portrait of Elizabeth I, wrinkles-and-all, the artist has stepped over a fine line. All the accoutrements of her glamour are there, but the painter has gone just that bit nearer to the reality behind the myth than was required to give a portrait plausibility. The result is a cruel unmasking of power. Could this have been a deliberately subversive image, hidden away in the house of some rebellious lord? Here is the fairy queen, her spell broken.

Sadly, there is little we can deduce from this picture, and certainly not enough to make speculative claims of artistic subversion. First, contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I with wrinkles are not unknown. The famous Ditchley portrait in the National Portrait Gallery shows her looking quite aged, for example, though you can't get a full sense of it from the photos. Secondly, the picture above is a not particularly good workshop painting based on a 'mask' that would have been re-used many times. The features and lines, in the process of copying, have become exaggerated. Finally, the effect of the wrinkles is exaggerated by the condition of the picture, in which a greyer ground layer is coming through pink flesh tones which have both faded and been somewhat abraded.

The 1563 proclamation referred to in The Telegraph almost certainly relates to the earliest portrait type of Elizabeth as Queen, an example of which we currently have here in the gallery. The Queen evidently didn't like these portraits, which the proclamation said 'did nothinge resemble' her. They were swiflty superseded in 1563 by the Hampden portrait (which we also once had here at Philip Mould) which was much copied, and set the pattern for the remainder of her reign. 

Update - a reader writes:

Yes I thought that too about the Wrinkly Elizabeth. The 'rebellious Lord' bit was like something you'd hear from a well-meaning country house guide.

That type is curious - a highly individual Ditchley variant. I've seen a few examples - probably more than any other late type, but still fewer than you ever see of Henry VIII. Strange how rare relatively Queen Elizabeth's portrait is. Where did all these corridor pictures go?

Update II - another reader writes:

Too bad you pooh-pooh this wrinkly Elizabeth as a "not particularly good workshop painting" -- I confess with head lowered that I find it deeply poignant and oddly impressive.  Ah well, that is the advantage of not having any connoisseurship expertise, perhaps!

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