£16m Elizabeth I 'Armada' portrait for sale

May 25 2016

Video: Art Fund

Royal Museums Greenwich has launched an appeal to buy a version of the 'Armada portrait' of Elizabeth I. The appeal to raise £10m is being led by the Art Fund, which has generously contributed an initial £1m. The headline price of the painting is £16m, but after tax concessions - due one assumes to death duties - the cash price is £10m (so the largest donation so far has come from the taxpayer).

This portrait type of Elizabeth is known as 'the Armada' because each of the three best surviving versions shows a depiction of Sir Francis Drake's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in the background. The portrait on offer to Greenwich (above) is being sold by Drake's descendants, and is believed to have been commissioned by him. It's painted in oil on panel. 

What is generally believed to be the 'prime' version of the Armada portrait belongs to the Dukes of Bedford, and hangs at Woburn Abbey (above). It's been a while since I've seen it, and nor have I seen the Drake picture in the flesh. Nevertheless, I think probably the Woburn portrait did indeed come before the Drake portrait in the production line. It also seems evident from the video above that the ships in the Drake portrait are later additions, for the manner of their painting is entirely 17th Century and very different from those seen in the Woburn painting. Perhaps they are painted over an original Tudor maritime scene more like that seen in the Woburn picture.

A third version belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, and although this has been cut down at some point to make a much smaller picture, we can still see the remains of a 16th Century maritime scene in the background to the left, which again is very different from that we see in the Drake portrait. I don't know if any technical analysis has been done to compare all three portraits. Another version of the portrait, this time without any ships but with the hand in a different position, was sold some years ago by Philip Mould and currently hangs in the House of Lords. I was there when Philip bought it, and worked on the research. 

The name of George Gower - Elizabeth I's 'serjeant painter' - has been traditionally attached to the Armada portraits. Attribution is always difficult in these Tudor portraits, but actually for Gower we do have a small but secure body of works by which we can judge his style, such as these examples in Tate Britain. Generally, I'd say Gower was a little 'better' than the artist we see in the Armada portraits, but that's just a personal view based mainly on images - always a dangerous thing. It's possible that such large royal portraits were in any case collaborative workshop productions, overseen by someone like Gower.

What's interesting about the Greenwich and Art Fund campaign is that this time there's no immediate threat of export over the painting. It has evidently been offered privately by the Drake family, but still the appeal is being framed as one of 'saving' the painting. And it needs to be saved from the market, according to Art Fund director Stephan Deuchar, who says the Guardian:

We are very anxious that it shouldn’t go out on the open market which will inevitably happen, I’m afraid, if we fail to raise this sum.”

My instinct, as a sometime purveyor of Tudor portraits, is that the price on the 'open market' would be a little less than £16m, and I bet the trustees at Woburn will be hurriedly updating their insurance valuation. But art valuation is a difficult thing, and there's no denying the importance, from both a historical and artistic point of view, of the Drake portrait. Greenwich, where Elizabeth I was born, would be a fitting home for this important painting. The Guardian tells us that the campaign hopes to raise the money in two months, and donations are being accepted here.

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