Yesterday was the 480th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth I of England. I tweeted some pictures of her yesterday and decided it would be interesting to post several pictures of her in the same outfit, by different painters. She was the poster girl of her age and her images were widely reproduced: artists of varying talents would take the best reference material they could get, copying another picture to create an idea of the Queen, a vision of royalty.
What those wealthy enough to afford such a picture hung on their walls was an embodiment of the idea of England, settled for a time in the body of a clever, steely-eyed part-Welsh redhead whose sole and single purpose, in her mind as well as theirs, was to keep her country together and free of outside domination, whatever it took. Part of what it took was imagery, imagination, craft and yardage of vastly expensive fabrics. By the choice of garments, accumulation of jewels, and visual references that would wake in the minds of her people echoes of folklore and legend from ages past, by little more, in fact, than smoke and mirrors, Elizabeth stamped her dazzling image on the soul of England. She was so effective in this that almost five hundred years on great minds are still arguing about her personality, her legacy, her contribution – arguing in the language her poets, playwrights and scholars forged and sent around the world.
Most of the portraits were made by artists who had never seen the Queen. One or two favoured artists might get an official sitting – the Queen’s time being very limited, they would probably have had to sketch her as she went about her day and then put her features onto a costume worn by a lady-in-waiting or an effigy. The rest would see pictures, or engravings of pictures, and do their best to emulate the more favoured masters. A pose might be reversed, the position of hands changed, perhaps an image or visual reference altered. In this gallery you can see five different versions of one portrait, and details of how the rather ambiguous icon of the serpent – symbol of wisdom, deviousness, and original sin – was replaced with something more acceptable. Editing one’s image is not a new occupation.
This is a post about iconography and image, not about politics. Still, as all the fuss over Vladimir Putin’s teasing remarks that Britain is a small island without influence dies away, I’m reminded that for two thirds of Gloriana’s reign we occupied very much the same position in world politics. We were also going through a terrible ideological war that set neighbour against neighbour. In some areas of the country poverty was endemic, and in all areas the working poor lived hand to mouth. All that time, despite lack of anything that could be described as State support and with only the patronage of wealthy individuals and great institutions, arts, sciences and learning flourished. And in 1588, against all odds and every sensible political prediction, we beat off an invasion from the mightiest power on the planet.
If we look at Elizabeth’s time from the perspective of those living through it, if we imagine the news broadcasts that might have come from London in 1560, or 1580, or in the dark days of 1587 and early in 1588, we might see something we recognise. We’ve been here before.