The Royal Museums Greenwich is asking Londoners to dip into their pockets and buy an “iconic masterpiece” of the English Renaissance, just one of three versions of the “Armada portrait”.
The portrait, by an unknown hand and in private ownership, commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth’s reign, the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588 and, if saved, would hang in Queen’s House, currently closed for renovation , on the original site of the Greenwich Palace where Elizabeth I was born.
Elizabeth gave her most famous speech to her troops at Tilbury in August 1588, ahead of their victory: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too...”
The portrait is one of the most famous images in British history – the inspiration for countless portrayals of Elizabeth I. But there’s more to the painting that an bejewelled monarch staring in the middle distance. The portrait is rich in symbolism.
Here’s what it all means
- Pearls – symbolising the purity of the Virgin Queen. It’s suggested they were the last gift to the Queen of Robert Dudley, her suitor for many years.
- Window scenes – on the left, the Armada arrives, on the right, with the Queen intervening, the Spanish invaders leave defeated. The Queen makes the difference.
- The globe – the Queen’s hands rests on the Americas which England was busy colonising. It signals that an English monarch’s reach was global.
- Pillars – the Queen is flanked by two pillars, representing the pillars of Hercules. There are a reference to the symbols of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, father of Philip II of Spain, who sent the Armada.
- Pomegranate – on her right, over her shoulder, the egg-shaped fruit symbolised fertility, abundance, generosity, union, prosperity, rebirth, resurrection and eternal life.
- Mermaid – carved into the chair is a mermaid representing the destructive wiles of the female and her command of the seas. The mermaid could also represent Mary, Queen of Scots, now safely behind her.
- The bows – on the front of her dress – and elsewhere again represent virginity, a virtue that was akin to a giant codpiece on the portrait of a king.
- The Queen’s face – although 55 at the time of the portrait, she is represented as eternally youthful with her ruff appearing like the rays of a sun, her back to the storm.
The price of the portrait, net of tax, is £10million. The Art Fund has committed a grant of £1million and Royal Museums Greenwich is contributing £400,000. If the fundraising campaign for the remaining £8.6million is successful, the painting will enter public ownership for the first time in its 425-year history.
If the money is not raised it may go for sale on the open market.
The portrait was owned – and may even have been commissioned – by Sir Francis Drake and his descendants have had it in their possession since at least 1775. The Armada portrait is unusual for its large size (110.5 x 125 cm) and horizontal format.
Director of Royal Museums Greenwich Kevin Fewster said: “The Art Fund’s grant of £1million is a fabulous kick-start to our campaign.
" Royal Museums Greenwich has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire this remarkable portrait of Elizabeth I, so that it can be permanently shown in a public collection for the first time in its history, and safeguard its future.”
The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I is on public display at the National Maritime Museum, London, throughout the campaign.
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