The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich have launched a campaign to buy the iconic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I before it’s put up for public auction. The Art Fund has contributed £1 million ($1,461,000) and Royal Museums Greenwich £400,000 ($584,000), its entire annual acquisitions budget, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They need to raise another £8.6 million ($12,564,000) to secure the portrait for its asking price of £10 million or else it will be sold to the highest bidder.
The oil-on-panel portrait was painted in around 1590 to commemorate the scrappy English navy’s defeat of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588 and has become an iconic representation of Queen Elizabeth. It has appeared in textbooks and inspired countless film and television portrayals of the Virgin Queen. Some scholars consider it the definitive representation of the English Renaissance.
Queen Elizabeth stands with her elegant right hand covering North America — Spain of course claimed much of South America — on a globe. Next to her shoulder is a crown representing her rule of a new global empire, and her dress, hair and jewelry are festooned with pearls, symbols of virginity and the sea. The fabric of her gown is embroidered with suns, symbols of power and enlightenment. Behind her are two scenes from the defeat of the Spanish Armada: on the left English ships in the foreground sail towards the larger Spanish fleet, on the ship Spanish ships are buffeted onto the rocky coast of Ireland or Scotland by what was termed the “Protestant Wind,” the breath of God Himself weighing in on the side of England and Protestantism.
The portrait was unusual in its time for the horizontal orientation, and was immediately popular enough to inspire multiple versions. This is one of three versions of the portrait to survive. One of them is in the National Portrait Gallery. It was trimmed on both sides to make it a vertical portrait and the English and Spanish ships in the background, the very parts of the paintings that give it its meaning, were overpainted in black. Conservators discovered the overpainting and removed it in the 1970s. The other version is at Woburn Abbey and is thankfully still intact.
The artist is unknown. Previously the National Portrait Gallery and Woburn Abbey versions were attributed to the Queen’s Serjeant Painter George Gower, but the NPG now believes all three portraits were painted by different hands and have changed the attribution of their version to an unknown artist of the British school.
The only version of the portrait still in private hands was once owned by, and likely was commissioned by, Sir Francis Drake which it makes it the most important of the three because of its close association with one of the heroes of the events depicted. It has been in his family ever since. It currently resides at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire, the estate of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family. They’re ready to sell, and if the campaign is successful, the portrait will belong to a public institution for the first time in 425 years.
Royal Museums Greenwich would be the perfect home for this iconic painting, with its fine 16th- and 17th-century collections, maritime setting and world-renowned conservation expertise. If our campaign is successful, the portrait will hang at the newly renovated Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I was born. Plans are underway for a national programme to secure the widest possible audience. The painting is in a fragile condition and bringing it into public ownership now will secure its long-term future, conservation and display.
It’s in dire need of that conservation expertise. Its background scenes of the victory over the Armada were also overpainted at one point, and the whole work is yellowed with missing flecks of paint. Half a millennium in drafty stately homes hasn’t done it any favors either. The Royal Museums Greenwich have the facilities to ensure a proper climate controlled environment that is ideal for conservation of the oil paint and oak panels.
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