Elizabeth I and her People

A brief foreword…

Until I popped in to see this exhibition,  I avoided the National Portrait Gallery. I would pop into the gift shop every now and then to see if they had any badges for the Museum of Museum Badges, but I wouldn’t venture inside. The reason? Absolutely abominable treatment. There was a temporary exhibition I was interested in seeing, so I asked if I could see it. “No” came the curt reply, “You should have booked online.” With that, the man left his seat and hurried off.

It wasn’t so much what was said but how it was delivered. Practically running away from a visitor wasn’t great either.

This was ages ago, but the memory of the rudeness had left me with ill-feeling towards the place. So I decided to see if things had changed. It turns out they had. The staff were much friendlier than before and didn’t try to leave after I talked to them, well done!

Elizabeth I and her People

The exhibition, as you can probably guess, tells the story of Elizabeh I and her court. Royal courts seem to be in vogue at the moment, with Hilary Mantel writing about the machinations of a Tudor Court and then there’s Game of Thrones, where courtly manipulation abounds. Elizabeth’s court wasn’t necessarily one in which you played games where, to quote Cersie Lannister “You win or you die.” Regardless,  it was probably best to keep Liz 1.0 happy or face her wrath as Walter Raleigh did when he married Elizabeth Throckmorton without his Queen’s permission.

Ah Walter. Was there ever a man as dreamy as him? I mean, just look.

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh inscribed right: Aetatis suae 34 An(no) 1588 ("In the year 1588 of his age 34") and left: with his motto Amore et Virtute ("By Love and Virtue"). National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh inscribed right: Aetatis suae 34 An(no) 1588 (“In the year 1588 of his age 34”) and left: with his motto Amore et Virtute (“By Love and Virtue”). National Portrait Gallery

Sorry, I’ll get back to talking about the exhibition now. Don’t worry, Walter’s on display. As is, curiously, the first depiction of a guinea pig in English art. 

We begin by becoming acquainted with Elizabethan England, we look at maps showing her Kingdom (Queendom?) before meeting the monarch herself. As befitting her status of ruler, Elizabeth gets a whole section to herself. The walls are white, as befits a Virgin Queen, and adds an emphasis to not just the pearls but to the rich colours used in the portraits too. “Please, Mummy, can I have more colours to draw that lady’s dress?” asked a small child who was intent on producing her own interpretation of a portrait of Elizabeth.

Moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I
Moorish Ambassador to Elizabeth I

The courtiers come next. Not only do we get to swoon over Walter Raleigh, but a whole range of others, including this swarthy fellow who gets trotted out every single time there’s an exhibition about Elizabethans. Say “Hello again” to your friend and mine, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud.

Although I have a fondness for this painting, it always pops up. It seems like curators are trying to say “Look at how international the Elizabethans were! Look! We have this one example!” Is there nothing else out there that gets the message across?

John Donneby Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1595
John Donneby Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1595

In a surprising twist, it isn’t Shakespeare who is held up as the Poet of the Court. Perhaps because we don’t have a reliable likeness of the Bard, or perhaps the one upstairs is too much of a draw?

So, if it isn’t Shakespeare, who is it?

It’s none other than John Donne (who you might remember for writing this poem about a flea). The exhibition displays a portrait of his as a young man, looking every inch the Elizabethan Hipster. No, really. He even has that “not quite there ironic beard thing” going on.

The exhibition manages to balance “Elizabeth” and “her people” really well. Even if, like The Telegraph, you don’t think too much of Elizabethan portraiture, these paintings reflect a lot more than just a face; there is power and wealth and status on display.

 If you want to see some badges from the National Portrait Gallery, head on over to the Museum of Museum Badges. 


One Comment Add yours

  1. I went to the National Portrait Gallery in December with the intention of seeing this, and at the desk ended up buying a ticket for the Taylor Wessing photography award instead! Something in my brain took over! Actually I didn’t regret my decision, I very much enjoyed myself and felt Elizabeth was slightly overpriced in comparison, not that they are comparable really. I am glad I came across your post though it was interesting to get a feel for it. I haven’t posted on my visit as yet but will be shortly!

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