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Elizabeth I and Her People, National Portrait Gallery, 10th October 2013 – 5th January 2014.

Reviewed by Nicola Clark


[1] Elizabeth I is one of only a few monarchs who lie at the hub of British historical consciousness. The National Portrait Gallery’s Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition taps into this sentiment at the moment of its birth, presenting Elizabeth as the idolised centre of her own contemporary society. The title of the exhibition is perhaps a little ambiguous; it suggests a collection focused on the Queen and her immediate attendants, her chosen ‘people’. In fact, ‘her people’ is used here to mean ‘her subjects’, and this has significant ramifications. Unlike most similar exhibitions, the scope here has been widened to include all echelons of society, and, in consequence, the volume of artwork focused on Elizabeth herself is far less than viewers may expect. This plumbing of the depths of Elizabethan society – a new thing for an exhibition of portraiture – also means that the quality of the painting is variable, which may surprise viewers who are not expecting to see poorly executed or ‘ugly’ portraits in a curated exhibition. However, it is these very departures from tradition which are new and exciting, offering a chance to experience the gamut of Elizabethan portraiture as it really was across Renaissance society in its entirety.

[2] Curated by Tarnya Cooper, the exhibition is structured in stages representing different societal levels, though the pattern of survival means it is necessarily weighted towards the higher echelons. The layout – five rooms for five societal segments – is effective, and presents many lesser-known portraits alongside those already familiar.

[3] The exhibition begins with maps and paintings of social scenes to set the context for the Queen and her people. William Smith’s View of London, Westminster and Southwark (1588) is a highlight here, quietly underscoring the complex relationship between the Crown and the City, the monarch and her subjects – a tension only really explored in the comprehensive accompanying catalogue. From this room visitors are led on to encounter the Queen in a number of interesting guises. Several of the best-known and most beautiful portraits of Elizabeth are here, including the so-called Darnley Portrait (c. 1575) (one of the few likenesses of the Queen suspected to have been drawn from life) and the ‘Ermine’ Portrait (1585) attributed to Nicholas Hilliard and lent by Hatfield House. Alongside these, however, this room makes the point that royal authority reached into all corners of society through the Queen’s image. Particularly striking, if not beauteous, is Elizabeth I with the Cardinal and Theological Virtues (c. 1598) painted for the Corporation of Dover to hang in the Town Hall, where it still resides. The detailed historical research on which this exhibition hangs reveals that it cost 25 shillings and was paid for in 1598.

[4] From here the show moves into courtly, aristocratic and gentry society, the largest space in the exhibition. The selection is well-balanced, including figures as diverse as adventurer Martin Frobisher; premier nobles the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, a pair of portraits originally intended to hang together, but now owned by separate private collections and reunited here; the Browne brothers, one of the smallest but most exquisite works in the exhibition; and three unknown children holding what may be the earliest depiction of a guinea pig in a portrait. Material culture is a particular strength here. This room alone includes two cases of objects designed to evoke those seen in the portraits. These play with the boundaries between public and private; while one case holds objects like pistols and tankards – public, male possessions echoing portraits of Frobisher and the Earl of Essex – the other cradles jewellery, trinket boxes and a fine comb – feminine, domestic objects seen in the disturbingly intimate portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton (c. 1598) which was never intended for public perusal.

[5] The next room is dedicated to merchants and traders, and begins appropriately with Sir Thomas Gresham, a man who embodied the segue between courtier and mercer. These portraits are not the glittering nobles usually seen in galleries but serious, hardworking, self-made people, and the curation rightly emphasises their importance to our knowledge of Elizabethan art and society. Contemporary preoccupations with immigration and religion are displayed here in the portraits of the Wittewronghele family, Netherlandish Protestant immigrants working in the brewing business. Materiality is again given due weight. The utility of the collection of merchant and professional rings provides direct comparison with the luxury of those owned by the nobility in the previous room. Documents too, reveal an admirable level of interdisciplinary research; art historians do not generally consult haberdashers’ inventories, let alone transform them into ties to sell as gift-shop souvenirs!

[6] From merchants we move to professionals, writers and artists, perhaps the most thoughtful section of an immensely thoughtful exhibition. The quality of these portraits is not always the highest, but this is not the point; the point is that portraits existed for the same reasons at all levels of society. Here we find the writer, John Donne; painter, Isaac Oliver; lawyer, William Lovelace; clergyman, Gregory Martin; and surgeon, Edward Lister. Alongside the portraits are copies of their owners’ books and depictions of their professions. The portrait of writer, Esther Inglis (1595), is particularly interesting for the – sadly unexplored – questions it raises about the interplay between gender, profession, and portraiture; is she depicted here as a writer, or as a wife? George Gower’s self-portrait adds to the dialogue here about the function of portraits, for he chose to use it to declare that his profession was more important to him than his ancestry. The timing of this work takes on significance when we know that it was painted just before his promotion to Serjeant-Painter for the Queen.

[7] The final element to this exhibition focuses on the most ordinary of Elizabethans: the working people and the poor. This is necessarily object-heavy as so few portraits of these people were painted and the survival rate is extremely poor. The section focuses on the narrative of the Baker family; a father away at sea, a sick mother, and a host of small children. The centrepiece is Susan Baker’s will, in which she begs a neighbour to look after her children until her husband should come home. Documentary research reveals that he never did. The exhibition thus ends on a note of extreme pathos which is somehow at odds with the impression of societal unity created elsewhere. Throughout these last sections it becomes increasingly clear that this is not an exhibition concerned with ‘art history’ as we know it – though the failure to link this show to the Making Art in Tudor Britain project, where the technical research on the paintings can be accessed, represents a serious trick missed. Instead, this thoughtful curation represents a scholarly marriage of art history, history, literature, and material culture. Though the exhibition is one of portraiture, it is itself a portrait of Elizabethan society in all its variable glory.

Royal Holloway, University of London, November 2013