Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603)

English School
circa 1560s

Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603)

Painted circa 1560s

Oil on panel: 17 ¾ x 13 ½ in. (45.2 x 34.4 cm.)



Acquired in London in the 1960s by Mary Hill Bishop (d. 1991), Chelsea Park Gardens;

and by descent to Mary Kennard Perry (d. 2003), USA;  

and by descent to Private collection, Germany, until 2017.

‘Are you travelling to the temple of Eliza?’

‘Even to her temple are my feeble limbs travelling. Some call her Pandora: some Gloriana: some Cynthia: some Belphoebe: some Astraea: all by several names to express several loves: Yet all those names make but one celestial body, as all those loves meet to create but one soul.’

                                                                         -  Thomas Dekker, Old Fortunatus (1599)


Sir Roy Strong quotes this pean to Queen Elizabeth in Dekker’s court play of 1599, as a perfect summary of the Elizabethan ‘cult’ – the image she had carefully crafted and perpetuated through her reign.[1]


However, this rare early portrait of Elizabeth is notable for its life-like depiction of the queen early on in her reign – indeed before the construction of the Elizabethan iconography we associate with the Queen today. In other words, that associated with the ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Armada’ portraits in which Elizabeth was presented as a remote goddess and perfected emblem of her own self-fashioning; images where she perfectly embodied Statehood, Empire, and a God-given right to rule.


The unknown artist who painted our more life-like representation makes use of the ‘Hampden’ portrait face-pattern. The Hampden portrait was an important full-length panel of the queen, made in the early 1560s. It was one of the first official court images of the young monarch from which a number of subsequent portraits including the present work were modelled. Infra-red examination of our version reveals careful under-drawing to define the contours of the face. Conservator Rosie Gleave of the Courtauld Institute of Art, has noted that our portrait is very likely cut down from a larger composition: ‘Physical evidence, including the presence of large dowels at the side of the painting… and later, roughly beveled edges, strongly suggests that the panel was once a larger image. It may have been a ¾ or full-length portrait, in line with other version based on the Hampden portrait.’[2]


The Hampden portrait is thought to have been painted when Elizabeth was forced to address the issue of her marriage during the succession crisis of 1562/63. It is the only known image of the ‘Virgin Queen’ that alludes to the possibility of her becoming a wife and a mother: the background to the right of the portrait presents a portal into a brilliantly painted array of foliage, fruit and flowers, alluding to the queen’s potential fertility. She also holds a carnation in her right hand, traditionally a flower used in marriage portraits, while a rose is pinned to her chest. The rose was both the Queen’s flower, and an allusion to the Tudor dynasty, but also an allusion to Venus, goddess of love, and on the other hand, to Christ. Christ’s bride, perhaps, for she never would marry another.


The ‘Hampden’ full-length was in an inventory of the Lumley collection in 1590, noted as by ‘the famous painter Steven’. That painter was long presumed to be Steven van der Meulen, an Anglo-Flemish artist active in England from around 1560. However, recent discovery of that artist’s will, written on 5 October 1563, dramatically reduced his potential oeuvre, bringing into question his authorship of the portrait of Elizabeth. It was suggested that ‘the famous painter Steven’ may well have been the Anglo-Flemish artist, Steven van Herwijck (c. 1530 – c. 1565), who was briefly active in England from 1562 – 1563; however, this hypothesis has been dismissed by scholars in the field.[3] Stylistically, we can however assume that the artist of the Hampden portrait, and its associated versions, was very likely Anglo-Flemish.


The costume Elizabeth wears in the present portrait is unique, and markedly different from the other Hampden versions. She wears a simple but rich red velvet dress, with high puff sleeves and an elaborate mesh of pearls and golden ‘spangles’ (sequins) across her partlet.[4] This pattern is echoed in her hairpiece – a caul of netted gold cord adorned with pearls, covering the hair at the back of her head. She wears a high, dense ruff with contrasting gold edging. Our portrait also includes a tear-drop pearl and  table-cut diamond pendant necklace, hanging from a string of pearls worn over the gauze of her partlet. All the other versions depict a dress with slashed sleeves, and a less sumptuously embroidered and bejewelled partlet. The present version is notable for the attention given to the costume, as well as to the face.  


Surprisingly, Elizabeth never appointed an official court painter, and she appears to have sat for only a handful of artists. Roy Strong pin-points only five specific artists that may have painted her through her reign – Levina Teerlinc in 1551, Nicholas Hilliard around 1572, Federico Zuccaro in 1575, and Unknown French Master in 1581 and Cornelius Ketel.[5] The majority of her portraits were executed by anonymous artists working from court sanctioned prototypes, and of course there were many unauthorized images. In 1563, just over five years into Elizabeth’s reign, and presumably after the present portrait type had been disseminated, Sir William Cecil drafted a proclamation designed to control the production of the monarch’s image, forbidding further portraits of Elizabeth being made until an appropriate model (in the form of a face pattern) could be provided to artists to copy from. After this, ‘hir Majestie will be content that all other painters, or engravers…shall and maye at ther pleasures follow the sayd patron or first portraictur’.[6] Later in her reign, in 1596, the queen’s Privy Council ordered public officers to assist in destroying ‘unseemly’ portraits – offering a further insight into a rather despotic and perhaps even vain desire to control her iconography.



[1] R. Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth, 1977, p. 15.

[2] She also notes that the inscription to the upper background (now obscured, and which read: ‘The lady Elizabeth/ her picture when she/ was in the tower’), was a later addition: ‘It is not known when this addition was made, however, owing to the painting’s current composition, it seems likely that it was added after the panel was reduced in size – the cutting down of the panel, and later inscription, represent a significant change to the painting’s original appearance and function’. R. Gleave, CIA No. 2069 (treatment 2009 – 2011).

[3] B. Grosvenor, ‘The Identity of ‘The Famous Paynter Steven’, The British Art Journal, vol. IX, no. 3, winter 2008/9, pp. 12 – 17.

[4] In the 1560s English partlets were usually made of light-weight materials including satin, lawn, cypress and network, and frequently made with matching sleeves (Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeht’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, p. 149). Embroidered sets of partlets and sleeves were sometimes given to Elizabeth as New Year’s gifts. Typically single women wore them open, and married women wore them closed.

[5] See R. Strong, Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, 1963.

[6] J. Ashelsford, Dress in the Age of Elizabeth, 1988, p. 14.

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