The three surviving portraits of Queen Elizabeth I painted to celebrate the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 have gone on display together for the first time in their 430 years. The Armada portraits depict the Queen in victorious glory front and center flanked by two seascapes featuring episodes from the defeat of the Armada in the background. One portrait is in the Duke of Bedford’s collection at Woburn Abbey, a cropped version is in the National Portrait Gallery and one is in the Queen’s House at Royal Museums Greenwich. With both Woburn Abbey and the NPG currently undergoing refurbishment, their portraits have joined the third in Greenwich to give visitors the first opportunity in history to see the three Armada portraits together.
An artist or artists unknown made the portraits shortly after Spain’s failed invasion. At various points scholars have proposed that the original was painted by George Gower, Serjeant Painter to the Queen beginning in 1581, and copies made from that, or that the surviving portraits are derived from a miniature portrait of the queen by Elizabeth’s favorite limner (miniaturist) Nicholas Hilliard.
The three versions have several differences. Woburn Abbey and Greenwich are horizontal in orientation, the NPG’s vertical. The latter orientation was achieved by cutting the sides off the larger portrait, removing almost all of the seascapes, the edges of the queen’s enormous balloon sleeves and the symbols of her imperial glory: the globe she rests her delicate white hand on and the crown behind her. Details of her clothing and accessories differ. Woburn Abbey’s seascapes are older, almost certainly original to the painting when it was made in the late 16th century. The Greenwich portrait’s seascapes date to the 1700s, although they are painted in the style of the 1670s or 1680s. Scans of the panel found the original seascapes that match the Woburn Abbey ones underneath the later versions.
Acquired in 2016 by the National Maritime Museum from the family Sir Francis Drake after a national fundraising campaign raised £10 million ($13,225,500), the Queen’s House Armada portrait is believed to have been owned, perhaps even commissioned, by Sir Francis himself. It needed extensive conservation after centuries spent hanging over the fireplace in a drafty old mansion. Two coats of varnish had yellowed it and it was marred by paint retouching from 19th and 20th century restorations. The varnish layers were removed as were the retouchings. The two seascapes, discovered by analysis of the pigments to date to the early 18th century, were not altered because they are so inextricably connected to the iconography of the painting.
The Faces of a Queen exhibition opened on Thursday at the Queen’s House Art Gallery and runs through August 31st. Admission is free.