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The Queen's House, Greenwich presents new commission by Susan Derges
Sun in Virgo, 2019. © Susan Derges, commissioned by the National Maritime Museum, London.

GREENWICH.- The Queen’s House, Greenwich presents a new set of works by artist, Susan Derges. The newly commissioned photographic works, titled Mortal Moon, are a creative response to the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I and have been inspired by the fragile vessels travelling the oceans at the mercy of heavenly and earthly forces. The works are being displayed in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, alongside the iconic portrait of the Virgin Queen.

Having trained as a painter, Susan Derges is perhaps best known for her pioneering method of capturing the continuous movement of water by immersing photographic paper directly into rivers or shorelines. For the Queen’s House, she has created four new photographic works, using both analogue and digital techniques, unpacking the Armada Portrait’s symbolism, with a particular focus on the Moon. The title, Mortal Moon is taken from the Shakespeare Sonnet, 107, which urges us to remember that beauty, power, status and natural resources are fragile and can always be eclipsed.

The Mortal Moon hath her eclipse endur’d,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;

In the Armada Portrait, Elizabeth’s fingers hover over a terrestrial table globe, a new modern luxury object. It signifies her aspiration to expand the country’s wealth through new trade routes and growing ambitions to colonise territories in the Americas. Derges’s Mortal Moon captures the wake of boats, travelling at night and the reflections of the Sun, Moon and stars on the water. The images are layered with the mythological figures of the constellations, believed to influence life on earth.

The artist has chosen to focus on the Moon due to its contemporary associations with Elizabeth I, where in poetry and paintings she was often connected with images of the Moon, which aimed to represent her purity as the Virgin Queen. This can be seen in a poem by court favourite, Walter Raleigh, who wrote The Ocean's Love to Cynthia, a long, flattering poem, during the late 1580s, in which he compares Elizabeth to the Moon. He wished to demonstrate his loyalty to the queen and his desire to be ruled by her as the Moon determines the tides.

The artist was also inspired by the poetic images of the Moon and pearls that appear in many different cultures. One Arab legend tells how pearls were formed when dewdrops, filled with moonlight, fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters. Elizabeth’s dress in the Armada Portrait is covered in over 800 pearls, acting as an enduring image of her purity and virginity.

Depictions of the constellations are layered within the Mortal Moon images, including the tragic figure of the mythological Ethiopian queen Cassiopeia, who was punished eternally for her vanity, having dared to suggest she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than the heavenly sea nymphs. Cassiopeia remains fixed in the night sky, chained to her throne, silenced forever.

Alongside the photographic works, a celestial globe, dated 1551 from the National Maritime Museum’s own collection, features in the display to emphasise how globes were used to explore the relationship between the earth and the heavens and calculate the complex astrological patterns believed to govern important moments in individual and collective lives, something Elizabeth would regularly seek advice on. The artist used models of a Spanish Galleon ship and a Dhow to create the Mortal Moon images giving a perspective on sailors from different parts of the globe.

Susan Derges’s Mortal Moon is on display at the Queen’s House from 20 March 2018 – January 2020. The newly commissioned works are part of a National Lottery funded three-year programme of events and exhibitions related to the Armada portrait and Elizabeth I that will be taking place until spring 2020.

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