Review: Elizabeth I and Her People

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 3 January 2014 in Culture
Anoosh Chakelian glimpses the lives of Elizabeth I’s courtiers and other subjects

Reigning for over 45 years is a bit of a slog. So many looming foreign threats. So many dashing male courtiers to fall from favour. So many bemused ermine to balance on the crook of one’s arm.

This is what Elizabeth I’s pale, pancake face tells us throughout ‘Elizabeth I and her People’, a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery exploring her life and that of her subjects through portraiture. An exasperated and stoical queen, with pictorial symbolism slathered upon her like lard on Henry VIII’s toast.

The oddly stiff portraits of the late 16th-century, depicting members of the monarchy and nobility as expressionless waxworks – if mildly irritated by their gargantuan ruffs – are distinctive in their uniformity.

The renowned ‘Darnley portrait’ of 1575 by an unknown artist was, in a rare occurrence, painted from life. This likeness of the queen was then copied in other portraits for the rest of her reign. Hence the repetitive nature of her expression throughout this painted history.

It’s the costumes, with the historical portent they illustrate, that change. A remarkable image is a larger than life portrait from Hardwick Hall that shows the queen in an opulent dress covered in plants and animals. Sadly the exhibition doesn’t tell us what all the crabs, ostriches, peaches and Loch Ness monsters represent, merely sticking to explaining the well-trodden symbolism of a pearl strategically perched to imply ‘Virgin Queen’.

We learn that a pillar means fortitude, a serpent prudence, ermine chastity and dogs show fidelity, and swords, maps or globes display her strength against foreign threats, ie. troublesome Spaniards.

The paintings of her prominent courtiers are absorbing for the stories of their tempestuous relationships with their queen. The Earl of Essex, Robert Dudley and Walter Raleigh’s friendships with Good Queen Bess fluctuated depending on their success in dalliances with other ladies of the court, or in any nefarious plotting of coups. Explorer Raleigh is depicted with a rakish earring and a crescent moon above him. The moon controls the tides as he is controlled by the queen.

A highlight is William Cecil, Elizabeth’s most loyal adviser, having some me-time by riding a mule around his garden. It is hilariously out of proportion, a gaping cartoon eye on the animal juxtaposing with the old man’s grave expression.

Regardless of the slightly dubious artistic prowess on show here, the stories of the royal court and beyond told through these portraits easily carry this exhibition.

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