Elizabeth and Her People
National Portrait Gallery, London
10 October 2013 – 5 January 2014
Reviewed by Paul Charlesworth
This exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery comprises contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I, the great and the good who attended her court and the merchants, lawyers, publishers, dramatists and others who made up an increasingly important middle class in late sixteenth century England. The galleries also contain some maps and artifacts that contribute to an understanding of the period.
Many of the exhibits are unattributed and, although one marvels at the condition of the paintings, some of which look as though they could have been finished yesterday rather than almost four hundred and fifty years ago, artistically, it’s probably fair to say that they are not all of the highest order. This, however, in no way detracts from the enjoyment of this exhibition, which might be better viewed as an essay on Elizabethan court and aspiring bourgeois life and to a lesser extent everyday life for those further down the social order.
The first part of the exhibition focuses on the Virgin Queen with some familiar portraits and some more intimate, lesser known images, including paintings commissioned for private and public buildings, miniatures and medallions. In an age where printing was still a new technology and travel was limited, it’s easy to believe that many of Elizabeth’s subjects would have had a good idea of what she looked like; such was the abundance of representations.
We then move on to a room devoted to Elizabeth’s courtiers, the nobility who seemed to go in and out of favor with alarming rapidity. The Queen’s most consistent advisor, and Lord High Treasurer, William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, is pictured riding a donkey in his garden, which was something that he apparently did to relax. A portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite who fell out of grace, has recently revealed a surprising secret. During preparation for the exhibition, conservators uncovered a small painted passage of wavy blue water underneath an emblem of a crescent moon. Experts believe that this indicates Raleigh’s willingness to be controlled by the Queen in the same way that the waves are controlled by the moon. Helpfully, magnifying-viewers are available to assist in viewing this and other details in the subdued light.
For me, the most interesting part of the exhibition was the final two rooms. Here we encounter the upwardly mobile; the aspiring middle classes, for whom having their portrait painted by an established artist would have helped to consolidate their social position. The banker, Thomas Gresham, founder of the Royal Exchange, painted in middle age soon after the loss of his only son, stares sadly out of the canvas, while the dark melancholy of the poet John Donne, as seen in a nearby painting, is surely a romantic affectation. The exhibition continues to take us slightly further down the social hierarchy with some paintings of trades-people accompanied by examples of the tools of their trades.
Altogether this exhibition is enjoyable and informative without being overly academic. It is certainly accessible to children in secondary education and will bring to life some economic and cultural aspects of Elizabethan life. The exhibition continues until 5 January 2014.
Entry to the National Portrait Gallery is FREE. Tickets for the Elizabeth and Her People Exhibition cost from £10.40 to £13.50 (free to members). For more information or to book tickets click here.