During the Middle Ages, English artisans were famed throughout Europe for their embroidered church vestments. However, from the time that King Henry VIII severed relations with the Catholic church in 1534 and established the Church of England, the need for elaborately decorated religious vestments and furnishings for worship diminished greatly.
By the late sixteenth century, the taste for rich clothing and domestic decorations increased and a larger portion of society could afford to buy or make these luxury items during the relatively peaceful and prosperous late years of Elizabeth I‘s reign.
Individual designers and embroiderers were often retained by a monarch or employed by a noble household to embellish garments, furnishings, and decorations, both for everyday use and special occasions.
Embroidery reached every conceivable surface in the well-to-do Tudor home: sheets, valances and coverlets, cushions for benches and chairs, coifs, stomachers, sleeves, handkerchiefs, bags, hawking gear, needlecases, book covers, bookmarks, book cushions, shoes, gloves and aprons.
Professional workshops were likely to have their own draughtsmen to produce designs and numerous pattern books were available. Woodcuts and engravings in contemporary herbals, bestiaries and other illustrated books were also used as sources.
Whilst few of the woodcuts and books have survived the paintings of the period have recorded for prosperity the abundant surface ornamentation of the Elizabethan Era and how it was expressed in clothing, especially by royalty and the aristocracy in Europe. Shirts and chemises were embroidered with blackwork and edged in lace. Heavy cut velvets and brocades were further ornamented with applied bobbin lace, gold and silver embroidery, and jewels.
The Art Fund has launched an appeal to save one of those paintings.
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1590) English School. The Art Fund
The impressive Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I is a statement of power and authority with Queen Elizabeth I portrayed as Empress of the world and commander of the seas. This is probably the most iconic portrait of Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. There are three surviving versions of the portrait in addition to several derivative portraits.
The version owned by the Tyrwhitt-Drake family, has, for centuries, dominated the country house mantelpiece of Sir Francis Drake’s descendants in their ancestral home of Shardeloes, Buckinghamshire.
Scholars agree that this version is by a different hand to the other two, noting distinctive techniques and approaches to the modelling of the queen’s features. This version was heavily overpainted in the later 17th century and may account for several differences in details of the costume.
After more than 400 years the Drake family is on the verge of putting it up for sale on the open market, prompting fears that it will leave Britain’s shores for ever.
The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich launched a campaign to raise the millions needed to buy the Armada Portrait.
The Treasury has said that if the painting, valued at £16 million, is saved for the nation it will forego the £6 million tax that any private buyer would have to pay. This means that £10 million needs to be raised over the next two months.
The Art Fund has already donated £1 million and the RMG another £400,000, its entire annual acquisition budget, leaving £8.6 million outstanding. Donations can be made through the ART FUND.
Frog purse Copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford Leather and silk embroidered gloves copyright The Glove Collection Trust, Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council
The Armada Portrait is rich in symbolism, as are many of Elizabeth’s portraits.
Elizabeth’s love of pearls is well known and in her portraits pearls symbolise purity and virginity. Pearls decorate the queen’s head and gown. The queen is wearing a pearl necklace given to her by the earl of Leicester; it was Robert Dudley’s last gift to the queen.
Although Elizabeth was around 55 when this portrait was painted, she is presented as youthful and vibrant with her made-up face, bright red hair and unblemished complexion. She is also dressed in all her finery and rich jewels, and really is the iconic, ever-youthful Virgin Queen.
Elizabeth is gazing into the distance which could symbolise her looking to the future of her realm.
Henry VIII’s posture in paintings spoke of his power and magnificence, Elizabeth too has adopted a posture of power and her ruff frames her face like rays of the sun.
The queen was very proud of her beautiful hands. She considered them her best feature and took pains to have them prominently displayed in all of her state portraits. If you look at the placement of Elizabeth’s hand on the globe, you can see that her hand is over the Americas which England was busy colonising.
The portrait was painted one year after the birth of the first English child in the colonist’s settlement of Virginia. Her fingers are extending to other parts of the globe and this symbolises that Elizabeth’s power is far reaching and that the whole world is at her disposal.
In the window on the left hand side of the painting there is the arrival of the Armada and then on the right there is the defeat of the Armada. This portrait could be seen as a tribute to Elizabeth’s success at protecting the nation from Spanish invasion or you could see a religious meaning: perhaps the ships are being forced onto the rocks by the “Protestant wind”.
The pomegranate above Elizabeth’s shoulder symbolised fertility, abundance, generosity, union, prosperity, rebirth, resurrection and eternal life.
The Queen is flanked by two columns behind, probably a reference to the famous Impresa of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, Philip II of Spain’s father, which represented the pillars of Hercules, gateway to the Atlantic Ocean and the New World.
The Imperial Crown emphasises Elizabeth’s powerful position as monarch and reflects her equality with the Holy Roman Emperor and her status as Empress of the world.
The arm of the chair has a carving of a mermaid, a symbol of the potential destructive nature of females luring sailors to their doom. Elizabeth’s position with her back to the image could signify her rejection of its meaning but it could also symbolise Elizabeth’s power over the seas. Another interpretation is that the mermaid symbolizes Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth is facing away from Mary indicating that the plots and Mary’s execution are all behind her and she doesn’t worry about it anymore
The large bow is thought to be a display of Elizabeth’s virginity just as Henry VIII’s large codpiece spoke of his sexuality and prowess.
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