‘A Child And His Nurse’, painted by an unknown English artist circa 1589, is a truly remarkable portrait. The baby boy’s eyes are so bright, and his stare is so piercing, it is genuinely hard to look away. He is only a year or so old, but wears fine clothes, which have been painted in exquisite detail. Sadly, like so many children in sixteenth century England, this boy died very young, in fact not long after his picture was painted. And that, to my mind, is the most remarkable thing of all about this painting. For here we have one of queen Elizabeth I’s subjects who, during his short life, would never have realised that he was important enough to have had his portrait painted, let alone comprehend that more than four hundred years later his mesmerizing stare would be beaming out from the walls of a gallery.
Lots of children died very young in sixteenth century England, of course, but to have had a portrait painted at only a year old, by an artist who was evidently very highly skilled, suggests that this was a child of special significance. A prince? A duke or an Earl, perhaps? Surprisingly, no. The baby in the painting is thought to be one John Dunch, of a minor gentry family, which tells us a lot about the time it was painted. It demonstrates that there must have been either an abundance of fine portrait artists in England at this time compared to previous eras, or that the gentry – owners of small estates who did not carry titles – enjoyed both better finances and a higher social status than they had in previous eras. Or both.
The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition Elizabeth I and Her People is all about how English society changed in the second half of the sixteenth century. Literacy was on the rise, thanks in part to the spread of Bibles translated into English, itself a consequence of the final consolidation of the English reformation and establishment of the Church of England. The English economy enjoyed an unprecedented period of stability during Elizabeth’s reign, with maritime exploration and the opening up of new trade routes bringing more and more wealth into to the country. Both the Royal Exchange and East India Company were founded in London during Elizabeth’s reign. This brave new age of trade, business and commerce greatly expanded a previously insignificant class of people between the nobility and peasantry – the ‘middling sort’.
This group of people not only grew significantly in number in the Elizabethan period, but grew considerably more wealthy, more powerful and more influential. With far more opportunity for people to rise up the social ranks than had ever existed before, those with enough talent and ambition were now able to amass large personal fortunes, purchase land and hand down estates to their children, regardless of the social standing of the family they were born into. And as the rich variety of different subjects of the magnificent paintings that make up this collection demonstrate – from financiers and soldiers to butchers and brewers – many more people besides royalty and aristocracy could afford to have, and were choosing to have, their portrait painted.
And just like their queen, these social climbers of the Elizabethan period wanted their portraits to be rich in symbols. Not of their divinity, mythical power or their ancient ancestors, but of their professions, their skills, and their crafts. The very things that had got them to where they were on the day they sat down in front of a painter. Funnily enough perhaps the finest example of this kind of symbolism on display in this exhibition is contained in the self-portrait of someone who was, by profession, a painter. Little is known about the early life of George Gower, but we know that he himself considered the social standing of his family of less importance than his skills as a painter, because in his self-portrait we can see a set of scales where a set of compasses (symbol of a skill or craft) is outweighing – literally – a heraldic coat of arms. An incredibly bold statement from a man who, during his illustrious career, painted the Queen herself (in her famous Armada portrait, no less).
The flowering of portrait painting in England that took place during this period had a lot to do with the influx of a large number of artists from the Netherlands. England became something of a safe-haven for Protestants fleeing the low countries, which were occupied by Catholic Spain and terrorized by the Inquisition (London in particular benefited enormously from the arrival of a whole host of highly skilled Protestant immigrants from all over Europe). A large number of these portraits were thus painted by either an ‘Anglo-Nethederlandish’ artist or by an English artist trained by one. Either way, in a lot of cases the artist is unknown. When you combine this with the fact that many of the subjects are not exactly well-known figures from the period – like a Raleigh, a Drake or a Queen Elizabeth – you start to understand why so many of these works were not considered especially valuable by either major collectors, or by museums and galleries, in the following centuries. To put together this exhibition, the National Portrait Gallery has had to pluck several of the pictures from relative obscurity. That is, from universities, libraries, and from anonymous donors with small private collections. What it gives us is a rather more complete cross-section of Elizabethan society than perhaps any other exhibition about the period has managed in the past.
Indeed, the Elizabethans whose image is already familiar to us are here also, but with some fresh light shone on them. There is an entire room of the exhibition dedicated to portraits of Elizabeth I. Highly appropriate, given her demi-God status, that she is separated from everybody else in such a way. A previously unknown miniature, about the size of a postcard, depicts the Queen as the victor of a beauty contest between herself and two goddesses, Juno and Minerva. It is a re-telling of the story of ‘the Judgement in Paris’, with Elizabeth I taking the place of Venus and her prize, the orb, taking the place of an apple. A far larger version of this image, painted by Hans Eworth in 1569, once belonged to the Queen herself and hung in Whitehall palace and is now part of the Royal Collection. In this exhibition it hangs alongside the newly discovered piece, believed to have been painted by a true master of the miniature, Isaac Oliver, in about 1590. Close by there is a set of coins all depicting the Queen, a reminder that portraits of her were not just hanging in palaces and grand houses, but being carried around every day in the purses of millions of her subjects.
Arguably the most famous of all Elizabeth I’s subjects, and certainly the bona-fide celebrity of the age, Sir Walter Raleigh, also makes an appearance. And some fresh light has been shone on him in this exhibition, too. Recent conservation work done on a famous portrait of Raleigh from the National Portrait Gallery’s own collection revealed a previously painted-over image of a crescent moon rising above a wavy blue sea in the upper-left of the picture. Curators immediately knew what this symbol was all about, since Raleigh wrote a series of letters to his Queen containing poems that, as a way of demonstrating his undying loyalty to her, compared the Queen to the moon goddess Cynthia and himself to the seas, suggesting he was under her control in the same way that the tides were controlled by the moon. These letters – on display in the exhibition – were originally thought to have been written in 1591, when Raleigh fell foul of the Queen by secretly marrying one of her ladies-in-waiting and ended up in prison. As it turns out, they must have been written at the same time as the portrait was painted, in 1588, the year that Raleigh captained a ship that helped defeat the Spanish Armada.
Other highlights include two charming family portraits – like John Dunch, from minor gentry – both with the age of each of the children painted above their heads, the parents clearly keen to record exactly what point in time this image of their children was a record of, much like a parent today will scribble the date on the back of a photograph. One of these portraits, of three children aged five, six and seven, two of which are holding a pet in their hand, features what is thought to be the earliest depiction of a guinea pig in English art (it certainly would have been considered an exotic pet at the time). Then there is the portrait of Jacques Witteroughele, another religious refugee from the Netherlands who settled with his family in London, and another of his son Jacob, who owned a brewery in the city and grew very wealthy. Both are dressed in fashionable black, the same colour as the Duke of Norfolk – the most powerful nobleman in the kingdom – wears in his portrait, since the sheer amount of dye required to create truly black fabrics made it incredibly expensive and therefore a symbol of high status. And both Jacques and Jacob also have one of their hands placed on a skull, with a clock floating eerily next to them. The hand on the skull was a popular symbol amongst Protestant subjects, used to show their absolute faith in Christian salvation, while the clock is these men’s way of saying that they are aware of the passing of time, and that their time on this earth is short. Given how much of a success they managed to make of their lives, in an age where you were pretty lucky to live beyond your fortieth birthday, I found the message that they wanted the artist to get across a very poignant one.
Above all, I enjoyed the portraits of people like the Witterougheles, of George Gower, of Gamaliel Pye, the butcher (what a terrific name for a butcher that is!), and Thomas Gresham, the queen’s money man who managed the crown’s debts, far more than I did the pictures of Elizabeth I. Since Elizabeth I’s portrait painters had so many symbols of power and divinity, virginity and purity to pack in, so many stories to tell and messages to get across, so much flattery to the subject and so much propaganda to the people to get down on canvas – hell, it’s little wonder that there was not much of a human being left to paint! Elizabeth I remains something of an enigma in all her portraits, mysterious, ageless, and giving nothing away. But look into the eyes of this colourful cast of characters who carved out a life for themselves in the England that she ruled for forty-five years, and you start to see real personality, wisdom, and humanity in there.
Elizabeth I & Her People opens today and runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 5 January 2014. Tickets are priced at £13.50 for adults and £12.50 for concessions (price includes a voluntary 10% Gift Aid donation). Book tickets here.
POSTSCRIPT (26th October 2013): Last night the National Portrait Gallery held a evening of Elizabethan-themed events, from music and poetry to a catwalk show. See some of my photos of the evening in the Exhibitionologist photo album or on my Pinterest page.