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Three surviving versions of Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I go on display together
Faces of a Queen, The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I display at the Queen's House, Greenwich © National Maritime Museum, London.

LONDON.- The three surviving versions of the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I are on public display together in a free exhibition at the Queen’s House in Greenwich (13 February 2020 until 31 August 2020). The exhibition, entitled Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I, is the first time the paintings have been displayed together in their 430-year history.

One of the most iconic images in British history, the Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict in Elizabeth’s reign, the Spanish Armada’s failed attempt to invade England in 1588. Royal Museums Greenwich will showcase its own version of the Armada Portrait - which was saved for the nation in 2016 following a major public appeal with Art Fund and funding from the National Lottery - alongside the two other surviving versions, from the collections of Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery.

All three versions of the Armada Portrait are believed to have been painted shortly after the event, circa 1588. Whilst copies and derivatives of the portrait pattern have been made over the centuries, the three portraits that have been united at the Queen’s House are the only contemporary versions in existence and the only three featuring seascapes that depict episodes from the Spanish Armada in the background.

The paintings have only ever been brought together before for technical research and conservation purposes, therefore this historic exhibition presents an unprecedented opportunity for visitors to come face-to-face with three of the most iconic depictions of Elizabeth I. The once-in-a-generation event has been made possible due to the generous loans from both the National Portrait Gallery and The Duke and Duchess of Bedford, who are lending the Armada Portrait from their private collection whilst Woburn Abbey undergoes a major refurbishment.

The portraits have been united on public display in the Queen’s House, part of Royal Museums Greenwich. The 17th century Palladian villa, designed by Inigo Jones, is a significant location for the exhibition, situated on the site of the original Greenwich Palace complex, which was a major political and symbolic centre for the Tudor dynasty and the birthplace of Elizabeth I herself. Several significant moments in Elizabeth’s reign are also known to have taken place at Greenwich, including the Queen witnessing the return of Sir Francis Drake from his circumnavigation of the globe, and her signing of the order to execute Mary, Queen of Scots 'from Greenwich, in haste'.

In all three versions of the iconic portrait, the dominating figure of the Queen is shown three-quarter length, in a rich gold-embroidered and jewelled dress, as the epitome of regal magnificence. Behind her are two seascapes, depicting different episodes in the Spanish Armada narrative. In both the RMG and Woburn Abbey versions, Elizabeth I’s right hand is resting on a globe showing the Americas, an imperial covered crown on the table behind, a fan made of ostrich feathers in her left hand, and beside her a chair of state. This detail is absent from the National Portrait Gallery version, as this picture, previously a similar format to the other two more horizontal pictures, has been cut down, also truncating the seascapes in the background. Both the date of when this alteration occurred and the reasons behind it remain unknown.

The Armada Portrait composition is a prime example of how portraiture was used to control the public image of Elizabeth I, presenting her as a powerful, authoritative and majestic figure. She gave very few portrait sittings, and instead pre-approved patterns or portrait designs were circulated for reproduction by multiple studios to keep up with the demand for images of the Queen. Once attributed to the Queen’s Sergeant-Painter, George Gower, some experts have suggested that three different artists or studios could be responsible for the three principal Armada Portraits. By displaying the Armada Portraits together in Greenwich, scholars have an unparalleled opportunity to study and compare the three paintings in detail.

The RMG Armada Portrait, which was previously owned by descendants of Sir Francis Drake, was saved for the nation in 2016 as the result of a major appeal mounted by Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich that raised £10.3 million, including £7.4 million from The National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, a £1 million Art Fund grant as well as other major grants. The public appeal attracted 8,000 individual donations amounting to £1.5 million.

Once acquired for the national collection, the portrait underwent complex and comprehensive conservation work in which several layers of old varnish were removed, more fully revealing the painting’s intricate detail and vibrant colours. Paint analysis suggested that the seascapes in RMG’s version of the Armada Portrait were painted over in the early 18th century, with the original versions still underneath sharing similarities to those featured within the Woburn Abbey portrait. The Woburn Abbey portrait remains the only version of the three that maintains the complete seascapes as they were painted in the 16th century.

The NPG version came into public ownership in 1765 when it was presented to the British Museum by David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchanan. It was transferred to the National Portrait Gallery collection in 1879.

Woburn Abbey’s Armada Portrait is part of the private collection owned by the Trustees of the Bedford Estate and has been in the family for centuries. It is uncertain how the portrait entered the collection, with suggestions that it may have been gifted to the 2nd Earl of Bedford’s daughter, Ann of Warwick, or the 3rd Earl’s Countess, Lucy Harington, both contemporaries of Elizabeth I. There is also a possibility that the painting was acquired in the 18th century.

The historic loan is one of several works that have come to the Queen’s House in February 2020 as part of Woburn Treasures (13 February 2020 – 17 January 2021), a major collaboration between Woburn Abbey and the Queen’s House. The collaboration sees a selection of artworks from the private collection of The Duke and Duchess of Bedford by artists such as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Poussin and Canaletto on display alongside significant pieces from the collection of Royal Museums Greenwich.

Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I is open from 13 February – 31 August 2020 at the Queen’s House in Greenwich and is free to visit.

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