Elizabeth I has been somewhat overshadowed by her namesake in recent years, but the curatorial team at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Tarnya Cooper, have sought to reestablish her as the mighty monarch she once was, as well as attempting to depict the lives of her subjects.
For a shy monarch the range of portraits of Elizabeth in the opening rooms are impressive, including rare examples of those painted from life. This was a time in which her image began to mean many things – from the power and prestige of its owner, to its reassuring qualities in the face of war. Her image was also one of the first to be mass produced, again evidenced in the exhibition with fine examples of coins, miniatures and portraits made from copies.
The largest room at the rear of the U-shaped exhibition space is concerned with the Nobility, Gentry and Court. This section opens, poignantly, with a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh accompanied with a poem begging for Elizabeth’s forgiveness after his marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton. The rest of the room is given over to detailing the huge advancements made throughout this era. Travel and adventure are shown in the portraits of Elizabeth’s Moorish ambassador and the Arctic explorer Frobrisher, and the fruits of other exotic endeavours are scattered throughout, the highlight being the first depiction of a Guinea Pig as a household pet.
All of the advancements were made possible by the increasing trade during the Elizabethan era, and these men and women have their own room in the exhibition. Again what is truly astounding in the works in this space are the international ties and the draw London must have had during this period. There are a series of remarkable, candid family portraits of the Wittewronghele family as well as many others from what would have been at that time far-off lands.
Towards the end of the exhibition the works began to peter out somewhat. The section on Professionals, Writers and Artists is a little sparse, although the painting of the poet John Donne is a highlight. In an attempt to represent the entirety of Elizabeth’s people the curators have left a small space for the Working People and the Poor, but it is really inadequate to get a truly rounded picture of their lives. This, though, is not the curators’ fault. As they openly admit there simply are not many representations of the poor during this period, and I think it is nice that they end the exhibition with this admission, rather than simply trying to hide it in the beginning or middle of the exhibition.
The focus is undoubtedly on the well-off in Elizabethan society but this is purely because they were the only section of society that were recorded. Overall though, despite the shortfalls of breadth, the exhibition does what it sets out to do: show the lives the first Elizabethans lived to their current incarnations.
Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Elizabeth I & Her People is at the National Portrait Gallery until the 5th January 2013.