Friday, 15 September 2017

Power & portraiture

An exhibition displays paintings that were seen as important symbols of Elizabethan regal authority

Written by Sandra Smith

Elizabeth I, like her predecessors and monarchs who followed her, used portraits to project power and influence. For this Tudor Queen, numerous large-scale oil paintings depicted, not only political authority, but her status as a woman of wealth determined to revive the family dynasty. Sandra-Smith-colour-176

During her era, miniatures held similar appeal. Limners such as Nicholas Hilliard, a pupil of Holbein, served as a miniature painter to the Queen for three decades, producing watercolours on vellum in oval, a preference he acquired from Europe, contrasting with the circular dimensions popular in England.

Although Hilliard favoured miniatures, he produced larger oil paintings, two of which – Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Amias Paulet – form the centrepiece of Waddesdon Manor’s latest exhibition. Scientific analysis reveals portraits painted on panels of French oak. This flies in the face of a predilection of English painters for Baltic oak, and fits with the artist’s influences in France. In addition, another portrait, dubbed the Phoenix, has been attributed to the Devon-born artist who, while at court, designed the Queen’s second great seal. This painting reveals the Queen, now halfway through her reign, wearing a pendant of the mythical bird, an emblem of her power and virginity.

In each painting of the monarch, three-dimensional details – particularly hair and jewels – reveal texture and luminosity, while thick paint raises the stiff, spiky lace ruff from the panel’s surface. Such details enhance not only their regal subject but others such as Robert Dudley, the ill-fated suitor, Thomas Howard, who was eventually executed for treason, and Sir Amias Paulet, resident ambassador in France.

The Rothschilds’ tastes and willingness to create an aura of accessibility in this exhibition brings together less classic royal portrayals. A Coade stone bust which, though unmistakably the legendary queen, reveals a softer, more thoughtful pose and was made nearly 200 years after her death. Alongside, celebrating contemporary art and popular culture, Lucian Freud’s Queen Elizabeth II is a small but bold interpretation which contrasts in size, composition and medium with Ann Carrington’s The Pearly Queen of Shoreditch, where two iconic images – a postage stamp and the Pearly Kings and Queens of London’s East End – combine.

In encapsulating dynamic, varied genres, this exhibition is successful on two levels: highlighting the power behind the Tudors’ need for portraits and our ongoing desire, centuries later, to continue capturing the likeness of our monarch.

Until 29 October at Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: 01296-820414; 

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