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English School

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

circa 1590

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Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was the only surviving child of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. When her father married Jane Seymour (mother of Edward VI) Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and did not come to the throne until after both her younger half brother Edward VI, and older half sister Mary I had ruled.

Queen Elizabeth I was painted many times during her forty-five year reign (1558-1603) and she controlled the images that circulated of her very closely.  In 1596 she ordered that all portraits made of her by unskilled ‘common painters’ were to be burnt and that subsequent portraits should be passed by her court painter, although it was extremely difficult to make sure no other portraits were painted. Elizabeth was often portrayed as an icon, an emblem of the British monarchy and therefore her imagery contained precise references to her power and virtues, for example comparing the Virgin Queen (as she promoted herself to be) with Diana the goddess of chastity.

This portrait was painted at the end of her reign and makes her appear younger than her sixty years, which was flattering but also helped to underline the stability of her government – Elizabeth had recently defeated the Spanish Armada (in 1588) and was at the height of her power. She is wearing a dress encrusted with pearls and rubies and a number of other jewels. The open-worked crown represents Elizabeth’s sovereignty and the great central diamond above her forehead, an important stone known as the Mirror of Portugal, refers to her power and wealth. The bodice displays a jewel in the form of a radiating moon that evoked Diana, goddess of the hunt and of chastity, and became popular in Elizabeth’s reign. This painting is known as the Brocket portrait, as it once hung at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire.

Elizabeth’s costume is made from many different materials, each material says something in particular about Elizabeth as a person. Hold a quiz and see if your pupils can match the material to what it says about Elizabeth.

<empty> Elizabeth’s relationship with her family was very important; some of the things in the painting are there because of her relationships. Ask your pupils to create a family tree of the Tudors.
English School, Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1590
Materials and technique: Oil on panel
Dimensions: 112.5 x 87cm
Compton Verney: CVCSC:0213.B
Setting and Symbolism
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