Official portraits don't always tell the whole story. Nicholas Hilliard's painting of Elizabeth I is a masterpiece of propaganda
This famous picture of Elizabeth I, known as "the pelican portrait", was painted around 1574, when she was about 41 years old and had been on the throne for about 16 years. It normally hangs in the Walker gallery in Liverpool, but now forms a centrepiece of a stunning exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, London.
Elizabeth was known to be lively, witty and one of the most educated women of her day. She loved hunting, dancing and music. However, she was vain and could be bad-tempered at times. It was reported that she once threw a slipper at one of her ministers who annoyed her.
Artist Nicholas Hilliard doesn't seem interested in conveying much of her personality, although some of her vanity and temperament can be seen. Her pursed lips give her a stern air and her pale skin is consistent with the fashion for a pure white complexion. Tanned skin was associated with peasants who worked in the fields. White powder, rouge and lip colouring were made from lead and were damaging to the skin. Elizabeth was often shown holding something in her portraits, as it gave an excuse to display her long elegant hands, of which she was very proud.
Hilliard concentrates on communicating Elizabeth's power and status through visual clues and symbolism. The macho poses of Henry VIII would not have been appropriate to portray a queen. Such symbolism may seem obscure to us today, but was easily understood by the people at that time, even if they could not read. It was widely used in Shakespeare's verse and plays, for example, so people were used to unravelling the meaning.
The pelican brooch on Elizabeth's chest is one of the central symbols in the painting. At the time, people believed that a pelican would peck at its own chest to get blood to feed its young and therefore sacrifice its own life for the sake of its fledglings. In this context, it meant that Elizabeth was prepared to sacrifice her life for her people.
The Tudor rose on the left of the painting combines the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York. It reminds people that the Tudor family brought an end to the War of the Roses and united the two sides.
Above the rose a crown shows her regal status. Throughout the painting the rose can also be found in the pattern of her blouse and the form of her fan. Each detail is loaded with meaning. The fleur-de-lys on the right is the emblem of France and symbolises Elizabeth's claim to the throne in France, even though the last piece of French territory, Calais, had been lost during her sister Mary's reign.
When she wrote letters Elizabeth signed them as "The Queen of England and France". The thornless red rose on her bodice connotes the Virgin Mary, suggesting that Elizabeth was a virgin queen, married to her country.
Cherries over her ear, stand for sweetness and a reward for virtue.
Elizabeth was extremely sensitive about her likeness. Sir Walter Raleigh, in the introduction to his book History of the World, records her ordering all portraits of her by "common painters" be cast in the fire. It is thought that she only sat for five painters, including Nicholas Hilliard, to ensure that the paintings were to her satisfaction. Nicholas Hilliard used a tiny squirrel hair brush to apply his oil paint. The painting is flat without a build up of shadows. Elizabeth's opinions about the use of shadow are recorded in the artist's book The Arte of Limning. The queen had apparently noticed the many different ways in which artists painted shadows. She asked Nicholas Hilliard why there was so much diversity: "...
seeing that best to show oneself needeth no shadow, but rather open light."
The queen chose to sit for a portrait: "...in the open alley of a goodly garden where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all." Even today, ageing beauties prefer direct light.
This article was written by the staff of the education division, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside The "Elizabeth" exhibition runs until September 14 and brings together a collection of objects relating to the life of Queen Elizabeth I. For more information and to book online, visit the National Maritime Museum websitewww.nmm.org.ukThe Walker education department Tel: 0151 478 4178 www.nmgm.org.ukThe National Portrait Gallery has a collection of Tudor portraits and offers study days and lectures on Elizabeth I. Also available is the Portraits of Queen Elizabeth: An Education Resource Pack by Clare Gittings (pound;14.95)www.npg.org.uk PublicationsThe Arte of LimningBy Nicholas HilliardEdited by RKR Thornton and TGS Cain Carcanet Press, pound;8.05Hilliard and Oliver: The Lives and Works of Two Great MiniaturistsBy Mary EdmondRobert Hale (out of print)The Artificial Face: A History of CosmeticsBy Fenja Gunn David and Charles (out of print)Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen ElizabethBy Roy StrongThames amp; Hudson (out of print) LESSON IDEAS:
Key stage 1-2 art
Create a self-portrait:
explain the symbols in the portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and how, like photographs today, people used to dress up to have their portrait painted and clues about sitters' lives were included in the artwork.
What would children put in a portrait of themselves? Clothes they would wear, their poses and possessions, such as medals, certificates, favourite books and films.
"Pounce" your own cartoon:
ask the children to create their own outline drawing or copy one. Then, using a pin, prick holes all the way around the outline (the students will need to wiggle the pin around to create large enough holes). Using a paper-clip, attach a piece of paper beneath the outline drawing and scribble hard over the holes with charcoal. Remove the outline drawing and there will be a dotted outline on the paper. The dots are then joined up to create the outline.
Pouncing was a technique used by artists such as Nicholas Hilliard to transfer their sketches on to wooden panels to be painted. Artists would have used loose charcoal in a muslin bag and banged ("pounced") the bag over the pricked holes. The pin-pricked sketch was called a cartoon.
Make a collage of Elizabeth I: use the portrait encourage children to think about Elizabeth's lifestyle. Give them areas to comment on, draw pictures of, or collect pictures to make a collage, and put her into the context in which she lived.
Questions to ask: Did she have a lot of money? How can you tell? What type of person was she? Do you think she looks healthy? In what type of house would she have lived? What type of food would she have eaten? What hobbies do you think she had? Would it have been easy for her to wash her clothes? How might she have travelled around?
Create portraits: discuss the colours and lack of shadow in the painting.
Allow students to use mixed-media techniques to create their portrait, selecting colours to portray emotions.
Create your own logo: explain how the Tudor rose is a symbol of Elizabeth's family. Look for other symbols and logos about life today to show how we associate pictures with certain people and places. Students can then create their own symbol based on objects that are important in their families.
Propaganda: ask students to find examples of how other monarchs and leaders have portrayed themselves. Link to modern-day examples in the news.