Elizabeth I & Her People – National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth I & Her People, until 5 January 2014, National Portrait Gallery, London

The glorious era of the first Elizabethan age is very well evoked in this exhibition which includes not only portraits but also over a hundred objects, such as costume, accessories, jewellery, coins and crafts to give a flavour of the period.

Queen Elizabeth I ('Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses') c. 1590, attrib. Isaac Oliver.   © National Portrait Gallery, London, Purchased with the support of Mark Weiss

Queen Elizabeth I (‘Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses’) c. 1590, attrib. Isaac Oliver.
© National Portrait Gallery, London, Purchased with the support of Mark Weiss

And what a time it was! Elizabeth I’s reign saw the rise of prosperity and economic stability as well as successes in overseas exploration and indeed in the defence of the realm against Spain.  The growth of trade and the development of new industries saw a flourishing middle class and the expansion of literature and the arts.

The Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1600-03  ©Sherborne Castle, Dorset

The Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1600-03
©Sherborne Castle, Dorset

At the centre of it all was the Queen, whose power and authority was clearly expressed through her portraits be they owned by nobles or institutions.  The Queen ruled. Ok!

Her courtiers were also captured in paint, such as William Cecil (Lord Burghley) and Bess of Hardwick, but what is particularly interesting about this time is that members of the middle classes be they lawyers, goldsmiths, financiers, merchants, playwrights or butchers and artists, also wanted their images to be recorded for posterity. They, after all, were contributors to the growing economic and political security of England.

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21–1598) by an unknown artist  © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520/21–1598) by an unknown artist
© The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Nor were the explorers such as Drake and Frobisher ignored.  In a newly restored portrait Sir Walter Raleigh’s devotion to the Queen is expressed though the colour of his costume and by the symbolic crescent moon above the blue sea waves depicted in the picture’s top left-hand corner.

Sir Walter Ralegh Unknown English artist, 1588 (c) National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh Unknown English artist, 1588
(c) National Portrait Gallery, London

You will no doubt have gathered by now that the only class of Elizabethan England not represented in portraits was, of course, the lower classes.  Their time had not yet come.

A hugely enjoyable, informative exhibition which gives us a fresh look at life in the first Elizabeth’s reign.  A friend said, reading the introductory board to the show, that some of the things expressed there were not dissimilar to the present Elizabethan age.  I will leave it to you to agree or not.

A Fête at Bermondsey by Joris Hoefnagel, c.1569–70, Reproduced by permission of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

A Fête at Bermondsey by Joris Hoefnagel, c.1569–70, Reproduced by permission of the Marquess of Salisbury, Hatfield House

http://www.npg.org.uk

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