Eternal Elizabeth

Today is the birthday (in 1533) of Queen Elizabeth I, a fact that would have been well-known in her own time.  The coincidence of Elizabeth’s birthday with the eve of the nativity of the Virgin Mary was not lost on her subjects, and obviously enhanced her public reputation as the Virgin Queen. In a Protestant England shed of its saints, Elizabeth must have offered some consolation. There is so much to say about Elizabeth, but too much to say in a blog post and little that has not been said before. In addition to her rather remarkable lifetime, the thing that has always impressed me about Elizabeth is her durability; even though she was a mortal person who died in 1603 she never really seems to go away. Every generation has had its Elizabeth:  the seventeenth century brought her back as a stark orderly contrast to Civil War-strife, there were lots of comparisons between Elizabeth and the equally-long-reigning Victoria in the nineteenth century, and we have certainly had our share of Elizabeths–from Bette Davis to Cate Blanchett to Judy Dench and Helen Mirren–in the last century.

Images of Elizabeth:  her lifetime.  Except where noted, all portraits are from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The “Clopton Portrait”, 1560, one of my favorites:  a portrait of the young queen before she became the subject of sophisticated royal iconography. Private Collection.

The “Pelican Portrait”, c. 1575, often attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.  Here we have a highly stylized Elizabeth and all sort of symbolism.  This mask-like face will be the template for some time.  The pelican brooch on her bodice is a reference to self-sacrifice:  a long-held legend told of pelicans feeding their children with their own blood.  At around this time, it was clear that Elizabeth would not marry, therefore she had sacrificed her personal desires for the English people. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

One of several official Armada portraits, this painting by George Gower marks the wondrous victory over the “invincible” Spanish Armada in 1588.  Elizabeth is now well on her way to becoming larger than life.

Elizabeth does not age in her portraits in the 1590s, even though she is in her sixties.  Her waistline gets smaller and smaller, and she wears increasingly fantastical clothing.  Commissioned by Bess of Hardwick in 1592, this painting is still at Hardwick Hall.  It has been copied many times, and the amazing skirt has served as the inspiration for wallpaper and textiles in the twentieth century. The drawing, from the collection of the British Library, is dated 1775.

Elizabeth Ever After:

Line engraving by Crispijn de Passe the Elder, after Isaac Oliver, 1603.  A very influential image, disseminated widely in the seventeenth century, and influencing images of Elizabeth to the present.  As an example, look at Alix Stone’s costume design for Elizabeth in a production  of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, 1966.  Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In a 1868 lithograph, a Vision of Queen Elizabeth tries to rouse Queen Victoria from her prolonged mourning following Prince Albert’s death:  snap out of it!

Modern Elizabeths:  Bette Davis, one of my favorite Elizabeths, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and Cate Blanchett in the poster for Elizabeth (1998).  I love the poster (which is based on the “Coronation Portrait” of Elizabeth in the center–the original portrait, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, was destroyed by fire and this is an early seventeenth-century copy), and Cate Blanchett, but the movie is a historical hot mess!

Appendix:  the best book on representations of Elizabeth:  Sir Roy Strong’s Cult of Elizabeth.  Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry.


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