The Elizabethan Image: An Introduction to English Portraiture 1558 to 1603 by Sir Roy Strong
Yale University Press, 2019
When an academic with such a distinguished track record as Roy Strong's publishes a new work in the field to which he has already contributed so much, it is an important event –particularly when the publisher also has a history of producing sumptuously illustrated books. Indeed, the result is a book delightful both to read and to look at, in which text and image support one another in an ideal manner.
The Elizabethan portrait has long been a subject of debate in art-historical circles. English portraits of this period stand out, for they often seem staged; rather than simple images of contemporary people, they are often loaded with complex iconography that can be fiendishly difficult to unravel. Portraits of the Queen herself, for example, chart a clear pathway through her reign, from the virgin princess to the mythical Gloriana of perpetual youth. Rather than representations of the monarch as she really was, these images are an amalgam of the political, social, and cultural mores of the time, and as such require careful analysis to understand their purpose. With any painting, but particularly a portrait, it is necessary to understand the reasons for its existence and to appreciate the coded messages which artist and subject may have conspired to conjure together.
When most of us think about Elizabethan portraits, we instantly see an image of the Queen in our mind’s eye. Elizabeth was perhaps the first monarch in this country to be the subject of portraits at regular intervals throughout her reign. There is a beautiful early portrait of her dated 1546, probably painted for her father but later in the possession of her half-brother Edward VI. In it, we see the young princess suitably dressed in fine clothes, adorned with jewellery and holding a book that is most likely a Bible. This appears to be an unambiguous portrait, unlike the later images, in which the artists abandoned realistic portrayal. As Elizabeth grew older the paintings became more concerned with symbols and signs, and, as Strong rightly asserts, the motives of the commissioning patron are key to understanding this iconography. While familiar works such as the ‘Armada’ portrait have been exhaustively interpreted with regard to their symbolism, less examined is the typical part played by the patron in the picture’s construction. Of course the fact that there are three versions of this work is an added complication, but as Strong makes clear, despite differences between them and the fragmentary nature of one version, whoever commissioned the first painting in the series would clearly have been instrumental in the decision-making processes which informed both the iconography and the image design. This adds a hitherto insufficiently appreciated dimension, and, as Strong again explains, the motives behind each commission must be seen as the driving force behind these two components. Of the many examples used by Strong to illustrate this proposition, two are particularly interesting. One is well known, the other less so: the so-called ‘Sieve’ portrait of Elizabeth, and the Marcus Gheeraerts portrait of Captain Thomas Lee.
The ‘Sieve’ portrait, so-called because the queen is holding a sieve in her left hand, is an early representation of what would become a familiar motif for the remainder of her reign: the Virgin Queen extolling the virtues of chastity and restraint. The sieve is synonymous with the Roman vestal virgin Tuccia, who demonstrated her purity by taking water from the Tiber in a sieve and not spilling a drop. However, although this is the clearest symbolic reference, Strong’s analysis reveals other messages hidden in the picture, which can be understood in their full complexity only in the context of the painting’s commissioning.
The significant features of this work (other than the Queen, of course) are on either side of the central figure. At the top right-hand side is a court scene, with Sir Christopher Hatton identifiable by the white hind on his sleeve. He was an important courtier and adviser to the Queen, and is most likely the patron who commissioned the painting. To the left-hand side is a column with scenes from the story of Dido and Aeneas, of which the main theme is self-sacrifice: Aeneas renounced his love for Dido in order to concentrate on governing and serving, so that his people could prosper. When these two aspects are examined in the context of the painting’s date, 1583, the picture shows itself to be a visual rejection of the proposed marriage between Elizabeth and the French Catholic Duke of Anjou. This union had been the subject of furious debate, both within the Privy Council and the country at large. Besides the age difference (he was twenty-eight while she was fifty), the Duke was heir to the French throne, so that the prospect of such an alliance was fraught with difficulties, quite apart from the unlikelihood of the marriage producing children. Nevertheless, Elizabeth clearly felt strongly about keeping the possibility of this unlikely match open, to the extent that she most uncharacteristically authorised a savage punishment for the author and publisher of a critical Puritan pamphlet issued in London in 1579 –both lost their right hands. (Elizabeth more typically threatened severe retribution in such cases but seldom followed through.) If Hatton, as an official adviser, was the patron who commissioned the original, then the painting can be read as a statement that Elizabeth had finally abandoned the idea of the marriage, and should now be seen as the Virgin Queen who had sacrificed her prospect of personal happiness in order to guide her country into a prosperous future.
The portrait of Thomas Lee by the Flemish painter Marcus Gheeraerts has long fascinated art historians. The artist is famous for the ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Elizabeth, the largest ever painted, in which she stands upon a map of the world. Sir Henry Lee commissioned that painting, and it is probable that he ordered the portrait of Thomas as well. The ‘Ditchley’ portrait is dated 1592 and that of Thomas Lee 1594, and Strong rightly wonders why Sir Henry would pay for such a large portrait of his wayward cousin, and, perhaps more importantly, why he should be depicted in such an unusual manner.
Thomas is presented to the intended audience—most certainly Elizabeth herself and her closest advisers—in the guise of a noble Irish soldier. The artist shows him bare-legged, in the erroneous belief that this was typical of Irish soldiers, who were thus supposedly better able to negotiate bogs (!). Thomas is standing within an imaginary Irish landscape, and the few clothes that he is wearing are highly inappropriate for an active soldier. His shirt, densely embroidered with black stitch-work, is open almost to the waist, and a heavily embossed pistol at the belt-line is a none-too-subtle suggestion of virility. However, the simple question remains: why would Sir Henry commission this picture by the same artist who painted the highly significant ‘Ditchley’ portrait, and why would he have Thomas depicted in this manner? Strong’s expert analysis of the iconography reveals the key to the picture’s meaning within those Irish references.
Strong argues that the painting was designed not for Sir Henry’s house at Ditchley, but for his London home, where it would be seen by other influential courtiers as a coded message about Lee’s intention to send Thomas to Ireland as Elizabeth’s mediator between herself and the Irish rebels, whom, the painting suggests, Thomas has already mastered. The mission failed and Thomas returned empty-handed; his fame now rests on an enigmatic portrait that is not what it appears to be at first sight. This is not simply the portrait of a young aristocrat in unusual clothing, but an overt political statement designed by an influential adviser to the Queen, whom he hoped to persuade of a particular course of action. Perhaps to demonstrate Elizabeth’s wisdom in rejecting the suggestion that Thomas would make a sensible choice for such a role, Strong reminds us that he eventually died a traitor’s death at Tyburn, having hatched a plot to lock the Queen in her bedroom until she signed a warrant to release Essex after his failed rebellion. (Furthermore, Paul Johnson in his biography of Elizabeth claims that in 1597 Thomas sent the Queen the severed head of the Irish rebel Fiach McHugh –another action that did not particularly endear him to her.)
Each of the eight themed chapters of this fascinating book explores in depth some of the best known and yet least understood works of this period. In its lavishly illustrated pages, we are led through the maze of Elizabethan artistic iconography and the accompanying political manoeuvring that seems to form the backdrop to so many of the works on show. Even artists seemingly well-studied, such as Nicholas Hilliard, are revealed to have made use of symbolic representations to convey complex messages. It is almost as if there were a secret set of hieroglyphs which only those with the privileged knowledge could fully understand. At a distance of more than four hundred years it is not surprising that these coded references should present something of a challenge – what will future generations make of our emojis? Such images are firmly rooted within contemporary experience; by their very nature they are ephemeral, and lose their meaning quickly. Strong, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of both English history and art, is well placed to illuminate these dense images.
It is perhaps fitting that in the final chapter he concentrates on a single picture, a work endlessly analysed by historians and art historians alike and yet still tantalising mysterious. The ‘Rainbow’ portrait of Elizabeth was the last painted within her lifetime. The most probable date for the painting is 1602, with the Queen dying the following year. Despite her age, her face is depicted with what Strong calls the “Hilliardesque Mask of Youth.” It is enclosed within an extravagant frame of wired lace, and Elizabeth wears a headdress upon which a crescent moon has been placed. Despite this, her dress and jewellery have excited the most interest and debate, since both are filled with coded messages.
On the left-hand side of the picture is an inscription that gives the painting its subtitle ‘rainbow’: NON SOLE SINE IRIS (“no rainbow without the sun”) is written above Elizabeth’s right hand, which clasps a rainbow, now discoloured. Her left hand holds the folds of her extraordinary cloak, decorated with eyes and ears. Virgin pearls are everywhere, and upon her arm is a bejewelled serpent. Strong pieces together the scholarship that has unravelled much of the meaning, some of which is relatively straightforward – the ears and eyes, for example, representing the benevolent head of state to whom everything is known. However, there is also a religious context, showing the Queen as leader of the Protestant faith. This is further supported by the image of the serpent, representing wisdom. Set within the difficult political time in which it was painted, when the Queen was known to be ailing and an heir had been identified but not openly discussed –at least not with her— this portrait is all about the representation of Church and State, and the authority of both. It is a statement not about the Queen’s individuality but what she symbolises in the secular and spiritual worlds, with the clear inference that this power will pass to her successor. The painting is a masterpiece of royal propaganda in which time and mortality become irrelevant.
As might be expected from such a distinguished academic, this book is full of erudite observations which both entertain and educate. It is beautifully illustrated and will surely become a reference point in the study of this fascinating period of our art history. The book is indeed an ‘introduction,’ an overview of English art at a time when our national identity was being constructed within the context of a massive upheaval in religious belief and practice. It is something of a mystery why some art historians fail to recognise the significance of that particular dilemma when discussing Elizabethan portraiture. Strong is clearly not one of them, and the result is a book to be celebrated for the way in which it succeeds in uncovering many of the lost or mistakenly-interpreted messages in these complex, but ultimately revealing, portraits. –Paul Flux