The portrait of Elizabeth I known as the Armada Portrait was saved for the nation thanks to contributions from a generous public and a huge donation from the Art Fund. It has now been fully restored and hangs in The Queen’s House, Greenwich. It is one of three portraits that clearly derive from the same pattern and possibly the same workshop and has been known as the Tyrwhitt-Drake portrait. For the purposes of this article we shall refer to it by this name.
Of the three Armada portraits the Tyrwhitt-Drake is, at first glance, the most superior. Like the other two, it is dripping in symbolism, but there are subtle differences between it, The Woburn Abbey Armada Portrait and that held by the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). The NPG portrait has been cut down at some point, probably because it did not fit a certain space and we are left with the central figure of the queen and tantalising remnants of a background similar to the Woburn Abbey version. The visible parallel elements contained in these two paintings are the columns of red with gold coloured bases, which suggests these two paintings may have come from the same artist/workshop. However they are missing in the Tyrwhitt-Drake version.
Records show that the painting we are considering once hung in the property known as Shardeloes built and owned by Sir William Drake MP (1723-1796)[i] who came from an old Buckinghamshire family and was a member of parliament in the latter part of the 18thcentury. What makes artistic attribution of the Tyrwhitt-Drake painting difficult are the areas of later overpaint.
The Restoration of the painting.
This brilliant restoration has been undertaken by Elizabeth Hamilton-Eddy, the Royal Maritime Museum’s senior paintings conservator. Ms Hamilton-Eddy tells us that the portrait was X-rayed in 1987 and that examination revealed that under the later overpainting of the naval confrontation, the original ships were similar to those seen in the Woburn Abbey version. The ships we see today have been dated as being those of the 1670s and 80s.
The varnish has now been removed and the painting has been filled and restored where necessary. What did come to light was an area of blue pigment had been added at an earlier restoration and has been identified as Prussian Blue, invented in 1710. The painting is now behind glass in a humidity controlled frame to protect it .
The regulation of portrayals of the royal features.
In 1563 Sir William Cecil drew up a draft proclamation regarding the queen’s portrait because there were so many being created that bore no resemblance to her. At this time there was no official template for royal portraits although the royal limner[ii], Levina Teerlinc had been granted a lifetime annuity in 1559 in recognition of her loyalty to the queen and her siblings. She was praised as being as gifted as her father, Simon Bening, in the painting of miniature portraits, but her surviving work is difficult to identify. The earliest full length portrait of England’s Virgin Queen is the Hampden Portrait dating. from 1563. Who painted this is debateable and two artists are suggested: Steven van der Meulen (who died 1563/4) or Steven Cornelisz van Herwijck (c1530-1565/67).[iii]
It was not until later in Elizabeth’s reign that George Gower (1540-1596) was appointed Serjeant Painter in 1581. As Serjeant Painter, Gower’s duties would have included designing aspects of interior design, sets for the various masques. Since Elizabeth created a court based on the concept of courtly love, and the Accession Day celebrations generally took the theme of the Arthurian legend, Gower would not have been short of inspiration for these masques.
The other possible, but unlikely contender is Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619). Hilliard was the sole creator of official portrait miniatures of the queen and towards the end of the 16thcentury received official monetary recognition, without an official post. Hilliard tells us in his draft treatise of 1598 that the queen had once sat for him outside in a garden and he was famous for being able to provide her likeness is only four lines. This demonstrates that he was very familiar with the shape and details of her face. Hilliard states that he painted his miniatures from life, but it is unlikely that the queen sat for every one of the many miniatures he created. Both the larger Phoenix and Pelican portraits (1570s) are attributed to his brush and are clearly created from a single template, but the stance of the queen in all three Armada portraits are more in keeping with the earlier Hampden portrait.
Both Gower and Hilliard were Englishmen and Hilliard, like Sir Francis Drake, was a Devon man.
The similarity of stance is further evidence of the tight control that governed official portraits of the queen after 1563, despite Cecil’s proclamation never becoming official. The common factor is that the queen is in ¾ profile facing to the left, similar to the Hilliard’s Phoenix Portrait of Elizabeth c1573. Considering the passage of time between the creating of the Phoenix portrait and the Armada portraits some sixteen or so years later, the queen’s face shows no signs of aging.
By the 1580s, Hilliard had created the concept of portraying Elizabeth being forever young. These miniatures are referred to as The Mask of Youth portraits and focus on the jewels and fabulous gowns, as opposed to an accurate representation of the royal face. It was a brilliant way of portraying an aging (and vain) Elizabeth and there are many of examples of Hilliard’s work showing the queen in just this ¾ profile view, surrounding by glittering faux jewels emulating the real ones. These miniature portraits also contain visual references to her purity and virginity: pearls for purity and reference to the virgin goddess Astraea, the last of the immortals to rule over a mythical terrestrial Golden Age, or the crescent moon representing Cynthaea, another name for the virgin goddess of the moon. Many of these portraits, as in all three of these examples, show strings of pearls hang round the neck of the queen and single pearls her hair. All the Armada portraits show her gown, which also has a generous number of pearls along the edges of her cape, gown and elsewhere.
The modelling of the face of the Tyrwhitt-Drake version suggests the artist was perhaps was one of the Netherland artists resident in London, such as Marcus Gheerhaerts Younger who created The Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth for Sir Henry Lee.
Another contender is Hilliard’s one time apprentice, Isaac Oliver, who is now thought to be the artist who created The Rainbow Portrait that hangs at Hatfield House.[iv] Oliver married Gheerhaerts the Younger’s half sister, Sarah, so from this snippet of ‘behind the scenes’ information we can deduce that the London artistic elite were closely connected.
The two other versions may be from the workshop of George Gower, Serjeant Painter to the queen from 1581. The high quality of these paintings suggests they were painted for members of the Elizabethan court, and the Tyrwhitt-Drake version is thought to have been commissioned by, or for, Sir Francis Drake.
There has been a lot of discussion about certain minor elements of these paintings. In particular the ruff, which has been described as being symbolising the rays of the sun. Hilliard’s portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh thought to be painted in 1584, shows Raleigh wearing a similar cartwheel ruff.
If you compare the lace of all three of the ruffs in the Armada portraits, it becomes apparent there are subtle differences in the patterns. The central front edging roundel of the ruff of the Tyrwhitt Drake portrait differs from the other two. Anyone who has ever attempted to make bobbin lace will recognise this ruff as a tour de force of lacemaking. In the Woburn & NPG versions the artists have made the ruff a delicate frame for the queen’s face and have concentrated on making the gown a glittering statement of wealth, power and majesty. In the Tyrwhitt Drake portrait the cartwheel ruff is substantial and the central patterns of each roundel differ from the lace in other two paintings. The solidity of the lace suggests the artist may have had access to the original ruff.
We do not know whether the ruff is supposed to symbolise the rays of the sun, as has been suggested, or if it is supposed to be a statement of wealth and majesty. This type of ruff was such an expensive item that only the very wealthy could afford, but we have the evidence of Hilliard’s portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh painted in 1584 to show it was fashionable in the 1580s. Whether it is supposed to have any symbolic meaning will no doubt continue to be debated, but it is good to bear in mind that sometimes a ruff is just a ruff.
However, the emblems of the embroidered sun on the sleeves of Elizabeth’s gown are clearly there for a reason. They symbolise the importance of the queen to the life of the nation just as the sun is important for our daily life on earth. Each embroidered sun has a diamond at its centre. The use of pearls and precious stones and where they are placed on this gown are all carefully chosen. In this instance diamonds were very probably chosen because they represent the constancy of Elizabeth’s dedication to her nation, which is assured as is the everyday rising of the sun.
Diamonds are not the only precious gems on this dress. As discussed earlier pearls, an extremely ancient symbol of purity, chastity and the moon, abound. Red rubies represent the blood of sacrifice. All three gems appear either on the dress or in the centre of the bows. To a modern eye, it might seem this is a gown that would benefit from less adornment, but this gown is not a statement of fashion. It is a statement of power and majesty. Each element has been carefully chosen to reinforce Elizabeth’s status as England’s Virgin Queen and of her personal sacrifice in the minds of anyone who was privileged to view any of these versions.
Let us now look at the common background details of these paintings i.e. the imperial crown, the finial of the chair/throne we see to the right of Elizabeth and the columns visible in the NPG & Woburn versions.
The Chair and the Mermaid
Let us return to the mundane contemplation of the chair. In all three paintings it is placed to the right of Elizabeth. If we study the placing of this chair it is apparent that we are not shown it in its entirety. The chair is depicted covered in a red figured fabric that appears to match that covering the table on which the imperial crown is placed. In a time when this type of fabric was expensive, this has to be one of the earliest examples of an upholstered chair shown in a painting intended for public view, and in this instance it is apparent that the chair represents a throne.[v]
On the top of the back of the fabric covered chair is an egg shaped finial. This has been described as an egg, an acorn and a pomegranate and sits on the top of the left hand side of this chair. Similar knobs appear on the throne in the illuminated P of document KB27/1168/2 (see the image below), and also to the left of the queen in the Hampden Portrait above, the queen has her hand on what appears to be a round finial. Whether this is a pomegranate, an acorn without its cup, or an egg, is up for the viewer to decide. Perhaps it is nothing symbolic and is just a finial on a very expensive piece of furniture.
Likewise, the carved mermaid is a typical Renaissance piece of decoration. Those who have visited Cardinal Wolsey’s surviving room in Hampton Court will remember the frieze that runs round the room just above the paintings. Here is an example of the type of Renaissance decoration that was commonplace in Europe, but when Cardinal Wolsey was building Hampton Court Palace this style was completely new to England.[vi]
The use of a mermaid in the painting may be a deliberate reference to the destructiveness of women as has been suggested, but I think this unlikely. Anyone with a knowledge of Ovid or any of the other classical Roman and Greek authors, would recognise mermaids, tritons & mermen as being subjects of Poseidon, god of the sea. When commanded by the god, it was their job to stir up storms and for mermaids in particular, to lead men to a watery grave. If the artist intended the mermaid to represent the destructiveness of women it is very likely that such a visual reference might have been misinterpreted as a comment on the queen’s character.
The use of imagery and the placement of this chair is more to do with demonstrating wealth and power than carrying any covert arcane message about the destructive nature of women. However, those with an understanding of Greco-Romano myths and legends might consider this to be a reference to the destructiveness of those oceanic beings commanded by a god and is a rather oblique reference to Elizabeth being God’s anointed queen. The visual references may now be interpreted that the queen is on her throne by divine right and therefore appointed by God, who also commands the wind and the waves. This less obvious analysis may be considered even more arcane, but is more in keeping with the layered mental puzzles so beloved of our 16thcentury forebears.
Together with the expensive fabric and use of the Italianate Renaissance grotesque motif of a mermaid to form the front leg of the chair, the viewer is also being made aware of the exclusive nature of this piece of furniture.
There are other similarities in the Woburn & NPG portraits, which differ in a fundamental way to the painting that hangs in Greenwich. For instance, columns appear in both the NPG cut down version & the Woburn version. This suggests that these two paintings have either come from the same workshop, or that the artists collaborated in the design. In the Tyrwhitt-Drake portrait we look through windows and there are no columns to be seen. This raises the question of whether this painting was painted earlier than the other two, or perhaps slightly later. Was this a different artist/workshop? Who created the original layout? Why are there such blatant differences? What is not told is whether any columns were discovered in the X-ray, which would have been evidence of these all originating from the same workshop.
The P on the Coram Rege roll for the Easter Term of 1589 shows Elizabeth seated on her throne with pillars to the rear, surmounted by lions rampant. The inclusion of these columns on something that would be seen mostly by lawyers, suggests that whoever painted the NPG & Woburn versions were also part of an elite artistic group receiving commissions by those at the very pinnacle of society. This does not help us in identifying just who painted these portraits; it merely adds the names of George Gower to the mix as he had been appointed Serjeant Painter to the Court in 1581. What is apparent from examining this particular illuminated P is that it did not come from Hilliard’s hand even though he was an illuminator.[vii]
The names of Drake, Hawkins, Frobisher and Raleigh have echoed down the centuries as English maritime heroes. Early modern English history resounds with their stories of their exploration of the globe, settlement in the New World, the seeking of the North West Passage and various confrontations with the Spanish treasure fleet. These three paintings are a commemoration of their exploits as well as their collective bravery fighting off the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Philip II of Spain considered Vice Admiral Drake to be a pirate and offered a staggeringly high reward for his capture. From the stories and various naval expeditions Drake had led against the Spanish leading up to the summer of 1588, it is apparent that our naval hero liked nothing better than to irritate the king of Spain at every available opportunity. Drake’s capture of the 120 ton galleon, La Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (called the Cacafuego by the English[viii]) hit the Spanish treasury hard. The galleon was laden with treasure and Drake captured her near the Esmeraldas Islands on 1stMarch, 1579. One of the first questions he asked on his return from his circumnavigation of the globe in the September of 1580was “Is Elizabeth still queen of England?” This voyage amassed a fortune for the various members of Court who had invested in Drake’s venture. Our trusty captain had renamed his ship the Golden Hind in honour of Christopher Hatton, whose personal emblem was a hind. Elizabeth had also invested some of her personal money. The value of this haul is unknown because the queen ordered that this was never to be disclosed, but is thought to have produced £47 profit for every £1 invested! The equivalent value of this captured treasure in today’s money must have been in the tens of millions! No wonder the Spanish king called Drake, El Draque (the dragon) and put a price of 200,000 ducats on his head – £6,000,000 or $8,000,000 in today’s money!
But I digress. In the NPG portrait we can only catch a glimpse of the scenes to the right and left of the queen. Thanks to the vandalism of an earlier time this makes it difficult to make a comment about this aspect of this painting. The only ship visible on the NPG portrait flies a pennant with white ground and a red cross, which is sailing away from whatever is happening in the background that has been cut away. The sea has been rendered more realistically to that in the Woburn Abbey version, which is an unlikely custard colour. We cannot discount the fact that this pigment may have undergone a slow chemical change over the centuries bringing about this unusual colour for a sea. The scene to the right of the queen in the NPG painting has virtually disappeared completely, therefore we are unable to make any comparison to either of the other two paintings.
We can, however, compare the naval scenes of the Tyrwhitt-Drake with the Woburn Abbey version.
The 1987 X-ray revealed that originally there was a naval scene with ships similar to those seen in the Woburn Abbey painting (below). The scene to the left on the Woburn Abbey portrait depicts Drake’s fire ships going in to Calais and the Spanish fleet in the foreground, scattering.
These vessels fly a pennant on their topmasts, which show a red cross on a white background. The red cross of the flag echoes the cross on the top of the imperial crown that sits in front of this scene. Looking at the scene on the right we can identify a ship from the very obvious bow with the round anchor port, as being the same as that seen in the centre of the scene shown sailing on the custard coloured sea. There is another ship to the left of centre on the yellow sea that has a distinctive aftercastle, similar to the one on the left of the other scene.
What I find curious is that these ships in the left-hand scene are apparently flying the English flag – a white ground with the red cross of St George.
There is a document in the British Library called the Anthony Rolls (ref Add Ms 22047) that has illustrations of various Tudor ships including Henry VIII’s famous flag ship, the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose famously sank in the Solent in 1545.[ix] During Elizabeth’s reign, Vice Admiral John Hawkins was responsible for the upgrading of the design of existing ships and designing new ones for Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. It was Hawkins’s faster and more nimble modern vessels that harried the Spanish fleet in 1588, chasing them up the English Channel.
There is another painting celebrating another victory against the Spanish fleet during the summer of 1588. This painting commemorates the British fleet’s engagement off Portland on 23rd July 1588, where Drake captured one of the Spanish ships.
The artist is similarly irritatingly attributed as being a member of the anonymous British School. However, this painting illustrates very clearly the different types of vessels and various flags and pennants of both the English and the Spanish fleets. The Spanish flags include those of the House of Hapsburg, as well as that of the Pope. What is noticeably absent from the Woburn painting is any reference to the English allies – the Dutch, but at the top right here we see a ship flying a flag with a white ground, blue horizontal stripes and a central white square with a red cross – this is a Dutch ship.
In c1601 the Dutch artist Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom (1562/3-1640) painted a celebration of the Dutch participation and victory over the 1588 Spanish Armada. The Dutch Engaging the Spanish Armada 1601. Ever since the rebellion of the United Provinces in 1568 against Hapsburg rule, the Dutch had been resisting the Spanish forces. The plan was for the Duke of Alva’s forces to be transported by the Spanish fleet across the Channel from the Spanish Netherlands. As history relates this did not happen and the Spanish fleet was engaged in battle off the coast at Gravelines. The Spanish fled from the English before the wind, up the North Sea until they reached Scottish waters. The English gave up the chase and stooged around the North Sea in English waters in case the enemy returned. The Spaniards were forced to continue northwards and rounded the top of Scotland before heading south.
For anyone making an in-depth analysis of the wrecking scene in the Woburn painting it becomes clear that the flags flying from the top of the masts of these ships are diagonal crosses. From the painting of the engagement of the Spanish fleet off Portland, it is apparent that the invading fleet is recognisable by a flag showing an upright yellow cross on a red ground. Why has the artist done this? Comparing these naval scenes to the Tyrwhitt Drake painting it is obvious the flags in this painting are completely different.
Whoever created both the early naval scenes and the much later overpaint, had a thorough knowledge of ships and the realistic rendition makes it clear that both scenes are by accomplished maritime artists. The immediate difference is the colour of the sea. At first glance you may think it is the same story, but look closer. The ships in the Tyrwhitt-Drake version are clearly sailing towards the fireships, not away from them. The way the fleet is portrayed in the background is closer to the contemporary descriptions of the engagement. The ships in the foreground are flying the red ensign from their sterns and the cross on the top of an imperial crown is visible, but in this context perhaps the imperial crown should be read in conjunction with the crown on the table next to the queen. These are clearly English ships waiting to engage the Spanish as they flee the fireships.
The scene we can see through the window to the right of the queen in both paintings, shows the Spanish ships being wrecked on a rocky shore driven by a Protestant wind. The Tyrwhitt-Drake artist has clearly studied the effects of the weather and I would suggest has also witnessed at least one shipwreck. But why are these scenes so different between these two paintings?
The answer is that those in the Tyrwhitt-Drake version were painted over the originals at a later date and are clearly the work of an extremely competent marine artist. But when was this overpainting done and, more to the point, why?
It is thought that the Dutch artists, William van de Velde and his son (also called William) arrived in London in the early 1770s. These two artists are recognised as major maritime artists of the Golden Age of Dutch Art. From the accounts of Charles II we learn that each were paid an annual retainer of £100. Very specifically William the Elder was paid for his ability to draw maritime battles while his son, William the Younger, for his ability to render them in colour. Evidently, during the reign of Charles II, they had a studio in The Queen’s House at Greenwich.
Considering the importance of van de Velde’s artistic contribution to both the English and Dutch schools of maritime art it is possible that this over painting was done by one of the van der Veldes. William van de Velde the Younger’s contribution to the English maritime school of art is considerable. He was known for his atmospheric portrayal of weather, in particular – storms. His observations of storms and weather was later studied by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).
This is purely speculation, but even with this little evidence it is possible that Van de Velde the Younger was asked to paint a more contemporary naval scene showing contemporary ships of the 1670s and 80s. We know the Tyrwhitt-Drake version was owned by Sir William Drake by the end of the 18thcentury, so perhaps an earlier descendant of Sir Francis Drake commissioned one of the van der Velde’s to re-create the victory against the Armada because they were aesthetically more dramatic than the original artist?
More controversially, and depending on whether or not pigment analysis identifies pigments invented later than the Prussian Blue of 1710, dare we even consider the artist of the overpainted naval scenes was one J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851)?
An imperial crown sits on a table covered in the same fabric as the throne, thus uniting them in the mind of the viewer as items of importance. A similar crown appears on many of the front pages of the Coram Rege rolls long before any of these Armada paintings were created.[x]The difference in symbolism between a closed crown and an open one is that a closed crown shows that the wearer is also the ruler of overseas territories. A similar crown appears above the illuminated P depicting the accession of Mary I in 1553, when England’s only remaining overseas territory was Calais. Despite the loss of Calais during Mary’s reign, the closed crown continued to be used on the front sheets of the Coram Rege rolls during the early part of Elizabeth’s reign, long before any settlement in the New World.
The crown in these portraits is not the same crown that appears in the later formal portraits of the first two Stuart kings of England, so it is very likely there was a template for artists worked up from a verbal description since it is very unlikely that any artist had access to the crown jewels.
Elizabeth’s hand rests on the globe and covers the state of Virginia in the New World, named in her honour by Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1583 Raleigh had been granted a charter ‘to plant a colony’ north of Florida, which was held by the Spanish. The following year he sent an expedition to the East Coast and a group of settlers made their home on Roanoke Island in today’s Dare County in North Carolina. The mystery of what happened to his colony has never been solved. It was not until 1607 that the first permanent English settlement was founded at Jamestown, Virginia. This was financed by The London Company (aka Charter Company of Virginia) founded in 1606 in the early years of the reign of James I, hence Jamestown being the name of the first permanent settlement.
Hans Holbein the Younger (c11497-1543) had also portrayed a globe of the world (as well as one of the signs of the zodiac) in his painting of The Ambassadors that hangs in the National Gallery, London. When Holbein painted Jean de Dinteville & his cousin, George de Selve in 1533, it was a mere eleven years since Magellan’s fleet had circumnavigated the world, and Holbein’s terrestrial globe forms part of a collection of scientific instruments. This is no statement of colonisation, and the visible part of this globe shows Europe, North Africa and the land mass to the east. Europe is coloured and the rest is white.
These three Armada paintings were created a few years after Drake was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world (1579-1580). With the queen’s hand so prominent over the Americas, it is as if she is laying claim to them and challenging Spanish dominance in the New World.
The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas was intended to divide the discovery of any new lands between Spain and Portugal. No other European country was considered. In a papal bull of 1493, Pope Alexander VI (a Spaniard known as Rodrigo Borgia, before assuming the papal tiara), had declared that all lands discovered 100 miles to the east of the Cape Verde Islands (38oWest) belonged to Portugal and those to the west – Spain, which was ruled by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.
The existence of three almost identical portraits demonstrates just how tightly any visual portrayal of this event was regulated. The use of an imperial crown in the three Armada portraits demonstrates that by 1588 England had recovered her status as an imperial power and by placing the queen’s hand resting on the globe and the placing of an imperial closed crown immediately above it, sends the message that England did not just defeat the Spanish Armada in the summer of 1588, but has a navy of sufficient might to challenge the Spanish elsewhere in the world.
As to the identity of the artist responsible for the later overpaint of the battle scenes of the Tyrwhitt-Drake, I do hope that it proves to be William van der Velde the Younger, who died in England in 1707, or even possibly J.M.W. Turner.
If you want to see this incredible image of Elizabethan maritime might and majesty, it is now on display at The Queen’s House, Greenwich. https://www.rmg.co.uk/join-support/help-save-armada-portrait
[iv]Andrew Graham-Dixon 2002. http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/itp-91-elizabeth-i-the-rainbow-portrait-attributed-to-isaac-oliver.html
[v]Founded in 1465, The Worshipful Company of Upholsterers was granted a royal charter by Charles I in 1626 and a replace for the charter destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, by his son, Charles II in 1668. It was not until the 17thcentury that the aspirational members of society started to have upholstered furniture in their houses. Before then only the incredibly wealthy could afford this type of chair.
[vi]This is the restored frieze above the paintings depicting the passion of Christ in Wolsey’s Closet and was taken from this website. http://tmlighting.com/products/hampton-court-palace-cumberland-suite-wolsey-closet/
[vii]There are various illuminated Ps from this period that have been removed from the front of the specific Rolls for preservation. These have not been examined for the presence of columns, or fancy chairlegs.
[ix]I would like to thank Phil Roberts, who has been a member of The Mary Rose Trust since its inception, for his help in the maritime aspects of this article. He is currently researching another book with a maritime theme.