Elizabeth I: what does this forgotten portrait tell us about her?

Alison Weir and Tracy Borman reveal how the discovery of a forgotten portrait has given them a fresh view of the teenage Princess Elizabeth.

This article was first published in the June 2008 issue of BBC History Magazine

Portrait found in 2008, Elizabeth far right. (Trustees of the 9th Duke of Buccleuch's Chattels Funds/Syon Park-James McDonald)

Elizabeth I is one of the most painted monarchs in British history. A plethora of portraits of the Virgin Queen adorn galleries, stately homes and private collections across the world. Each one has been analysed and discussed by biographers and art historians ever since Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Imagine, then, our excitement when we discovered a portrait that has until now been overlooked.

At Boughton House, Northamptonshire, in the private collection of the Duke of Buccleuch, hangs a painting which is not on public display and has never before now been reproduced. It depicts Henry  VIII and his three children, with Will Somers, his famous jester, standing in the background. On the extreme right of the picture, furthest away from her father (and, by implication, from the throne itself) is the teenage Princess Elizabeth.

Our discovery was made thanks to the staff at Boughton House, and in particular the director, Gareth Fitzpatrick, who knew we were both researching Elizabeth I and thought that the small painting might be of interest. As soon as we opened the rather blurry scan that was emailed to us, we realised that we were looking at a very important find: a lost portrait of Elizabeth I as princess. This turned out to be just the beginning of a remarkable historical journey. By piecing together the available evidence, including comparable portraits of the period, we are able to tell the fascinating story of a painting that has until now remained hidden from the public eye.

Portraits of Elizabeth I surviving from before her accession in 1558 are extraordinarily rare. Until the Boughton discovery, only two can be said with certainty to portray her. She appears at the age of about 10 in the picture of the Henry  VIII family group, now at Hampton Court, which was painted by an unknown artist around 1544–5. There is also a fine portrait of her at Windsor Castle, wearing a rose damask gown. This is recorded in Henry VIII’s inventory in 1547, and was probably painted in c1546, perhaps by the court painter William Scrots.

There exist too several versions of a half-length portrait of a young woman who may also be Elizabeth, notably at Syon House (the London home of the Duke of Northumberland), Audley End House in Essex and (formerly) the Berry Hill Galleries in New York. In this portrait type, probably dating from the early to mid-1550s, the sitter, who is painted full-faced, wears the sombre garb of a virtuous Protestant maiden – attire that Elizabeth famously affected during her brother Edward VI’s reign to help restore her reputation after the scandal of her alleged affair with Thomas Seymour.

The Syon House portrait has traditionally been called Lady Jane Grey, but historian and specialist in Tudor portraiture Sir Roy Strong identified it, on good grounds, as Elizabeth in 1969. The near-identical Audley End portrait is labelled in a later hand as Jane, but the Berry Hill portrait has long been identified as Elizabeth. Closely related to these in appearance is a full-faced portrait of Elizabeth I at Hever Castle, probably painted shortly after her accession in 1558. This in turn has similarities with a miniature of Elizabeth in coronation robes, which dates from c1559 to the 1570s, in the collection of the Duke of Portland. A later, inferior version of this is in the National Portrait Gallery.

This portrait at Syon House was for many years believed to be Lady Jane Grey but may well be the young Elizabeth. (Copyright Trustees of the 9th Duke of Buccleuch's Chattels Funds/Syon Park-James McDonald) 

Essentially, then, there are two proven portrait types of the Lady Elizabeth, as she was known prior to her accession. That the Boughton portrait constitutes a historically significant addition to this body of work is in little doubt. It may be virtually unknown, nor indeed has it ever been subject to in-depth scrutiny by historians or art specialists. Yet this picture incorporates an important, hitherto unrecognised image of Elizabeth I as a teenager – an exciting find in itself. It also bears striking similarities to the group of inconclusively identified portraits at Syon House, Audley End and Berry Hill, and may solve the mystery of a portrait of an unknown lady in the National Portrait Gallery that has puzzled art historians for generations. 

The Boughton picture is a composite portrait by an unknown follower of Hans Holbein and William Scrots. In the opinion of art historian Linda Collins, it is a small copy (dating from c1650–1680, on the evidence of its frame and the treatment of the canopy or drapery in the background) of an original panel painting.

 

The boy-king

That original had almost certainly been painted towards the end of Edward VI’s reign, in the early 1550s. This date is suggested by the fact that the boy-king is shown in the centre of the picture, his figure is larger than those of his older sisters, and that his image is based on the documented portraits executed by the court artist William Scrots around 1550–52, of which many copies exist. Had the original painting been of a later date, after 1553, the year of Edward’s death, then surely Mary I or Elizabeth I would have been the prominent figure. 

To the left of the picture appears Edward’s father, Henry  VIII, whose figure is based upon the final portrait type of the king – attributed to Hans Holbein and painted around 1543 – which is at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. In the Boughton picture, Henry wears similar costume and has the same pose, grasping a staff in his left hand and a glove in his right. However, he looks older than in the Holbein painting.

To the right of the Boughton picture are Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. Their position in the succession (and in their father’s affections) had always been precarious, and both had to endure the indignity of being labelled bastards when Henry had declared his marriages to Katherine of Aragon and then Anne Boleyn invalid. However, thanks perhaps in no small part to the benign influence of his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, the two daughters were restored to the succession in 1544. Although both were to become queens regnant, they appear of far less significance here, in a picture that must have been painted at a time when their brother Edward was confidently expected to grow up, marry and produce royal heirs who would displace them in the succession.

The image of Mary is based on no known likeness, although there are similarities to other portraits of her that were painted shortly afterwards when she was queen. This picture of Mary is therefore a significant discovery, because there exists no other portrait of her dating from the latter half of Edward’s reign.

As we’ve said, the image of Elizabeth is also significant – chiefly due to its resemblance to the small circular portrait of a young lady in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 764). Both sitters wear almost identical costume; there are strong similarities in the jaw, mouth and nose; and if the eyes and hairline differ slightly, this may well be due to the fact that NPG 764 is heavily overpainted. Indeed, it has recently been cleaned and conserved, and the similarity is now even more striking than before. This all suggests that the Boughton Elizabeth may derive from NPG 764 or another version of it, and that this was a known portrait type of the princess.

NPG 764, which is six-and-a-half inches in diameter, was originally identified as Lady Jane Grey in 1887, when it was purchased by the gallery. This identification was accepted until 1963, when Sir Roy Strong cast doubt upon the subject being Grey. In his Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, Strong suggested a link between NPG 764 and other portraits of the young Elizabeth. However, in 1969, in Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, he stated that he was less inclined to support that identification – and the lady has since been regarded as unknown. There are other linked portraits of Elizabeth as a young queen that have similarities to both NPG 764 and the Boughton picture. As well as two drawings from c1560 in the portrait folios of the Receuil d’Arras, there is a c1559 engraving by Franz Huys, the portrait at Hever Castle mentioned above, and two miniatures of Elizabeth I by the court limner, Levina Teerlinc. 

A better-known version of the Boughton picture was, from at least 1733 until the 1980s, at Althorp, the home of the Spencer family, which lies just five miles from Boughton. It is now in the collection of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation in Texas. Like the Boughton picture, this is a composite portrait, yet in this version Edward and Elizabeth are missing. Another major difference is that Henry’s image derives not from Holbein’s last portrait of him, but from that artist’s earlier portrayal of the king, painted full-length as part of the famous Whitehall mural in 1536.

This portrait was to become the most celebrated image of Henry VIII, and it was the most powerful visual expression of the iconography of the New Monarchy and Royal Supremacy of the 1530s. Coming face to face with it in the privy chamber, where it dominated the room, observers would feel “abashed and annihilated”. It was effectively the first state portrait; six full-length copies of it survive, and numerous half-length versions. There would have been a high demand for copies by subjects anxious to proclaim their loyalty to the new order.

The image of Mary in the Althorp picture is also based on a state portrait, the one painted by the Spanish artist Antonis Mor in 1554, of which three major versions exist (at the Prado, Madrid; Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire; and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston). There are other inferior versions, but this is one of the chief portrait types of the staunchly Catholic Mary I, and its use as the basis for her figure in the Althorp portrait strongly suggests that the picture must date from her reign (between 1554, the year of Mor’s portrait, and 1558). This theory is supported by the absence of the Protestant Edward VI and the politically and doctrinally suspect Elizabeth, who was out of favour for much of Mary’s reign.  

 

A fool and his portrait

A major link between the Boughton and Althorp pictures is Will Somers, Henry  VIII’s fool, who appears in both. It may also be more than a coincidence that these pictures once hung within five miles of each other in Northamptonshire, while Somers had links with the Fermor family who lived some 10 miles south of Althorp at Easton Neston. Somers could have commissioned both pictures, yet the original version of our painting was not at Boughton in the 17th  century, when only six large portraits were recorded as hanging in the house.

It could instead have been kept at one of the other properties owned by the Montagu family – Ditton Park in Buckinghamshire or Montagu House in London – and may originally have come from Barnwell or Hemington, two houses in Northamptonshire that were owned by the Montagues in the 16th  century. On the other hand, it may have been owned by someone else – perhaps Somers himself? – and only later acquired by Montagu’s descendants. The family’s greatest collector was Ralph Montagu, the First Duke of Montagu (1638–1709).

Somers appears as an older man in the Althorp picture. While he is shown with receding hair in the Boughton painting, this has been replaced with a skull cap in the Althorp version. He has a little dog that does not appear in the Boughton image, and seems to be grasping something – perhaps a staff – but this appears to have been painted out. In fact, the whole of the background is plain, and the pink drapery or ‘canopy of estate’ that features in the Boughton picture is absent (it may also have been overpainted). This drapery bears no resemblance to the canopies of estate that feature in Tudor pictures; it might be a bed hanging or a curtain, and the style in which it is painted belongs more to the 17th century than the 16th.     

Tudor royal family groups were usually painted for propaganda purposes. The one at Hampton Court shows Henry  VIII enthroned in Whitehall Palace, with his heir, Prince Edward, and Edward’s mother, Jane Seymour, who appears posthumously. Beyond the two pillars framing this central group, stand, on either side, the king’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, their positions outside the inner circle reflecting their bastardy.

Both this picture and Holbein’s lost Whitehall mural, which depicted Henry VIII and Jane Seymour with the king’s parents, Henry  VII and Elizabeth of York, were commissioned to make important dynastic statements about the Tudor dynasty and the New Monarchy of the Reformation.

Similarly, in Elizabeth’s reign, a painting of c1572 attributed to Lucas de Heere (at Sudeley Castle) depicts Henry  VIII with Edward  VI kneeling beside him, with Mary I and Philip of Spain attended by Mars, the god of war, and Elizabeth  I bringing with her the goddesses of peace and plenty. This is no cosy family portrait but an allegory of the Tudor succession and the peace it had brought to England.

It was sent by Elizabeth herself to her ambassador in France, Sir Francis Walsingham, probably in the wake of the St Bartholemew’s Day massacre of 1572 (when Catholics across France killed thousands of Protestants), as a “mark of her people’s and her own content”, as the inscription shows. Another family group, showing Henry  VIII, Edward  VI and Elizabeth  I, dated 1597 and now in the Art Institute of Chicago, bears the inscription: “Professors and defendors of the trve Catholicke faythe”. 

Lucas de Heere’s c1570–75 painting of Henry VIII’s family is an allegory of the Tudor succession and the peace Elizabeth brought to England (Copyright Bridgeman Art Library)

 

The National Portrait Gallery’s view

The similarity between the Boughton Elizabeth and the so-called ‘unknown lady’ portrait (NPG 764) in the National Portrait Gallery led the authors to approach the gallery for its views. Dr Tarnya Cooper, curator, 16th-century collections, believes our article raises some important points. Of the Boughton picture, she states, “It is clearly later – certainly 17th century. I do agree it appears possible that there may have been a 16th-century source”. Asked to comment on that picture’s similarity to NPG 764, she told us, “Our current view is that Elizabeth I was always a possible candidate for this portrait. I am delighted that some further evidence has emerged. Well done for undertaking this research”.

Dr Cooper added, “We have recently had our picture looked at with dendrochronology (the science of dating events and artefacts). However, there were too few rings to be able to make an assessment of date by this method. Since recent conservation work, it now seems likely that this picture is mid to late 16th century. We will also be looking at our Elizabeth with a cap (NPG 4449, which depicts her early in her reign and of which there are several other types) in the next year”.

NPG 764 is on display with other early portraits from the National Portrait Gallery at Montacute House, Somerset.

This portrait of an unknown lady at the National Portrait Gallery resembles the Elizabeth in the Boughton picture. (Copyright National Portrait Gallery) 

 

Propaganda purposes

This begs the question: were the Boughton and Althorp groups painted to make a political statement? The answer is very likely yes. It is possible that the Boughton group was commissioned to illustrate the Tudor succession and Somers’s links to the royal house. It may be that this picture, and its original, have always been in the possession of the Montagu family.

Boughton was bought in 1528 by Sir Edward Montagu (d 1557), the present Duke of Buccleuch’s ancestor. Sir Edward, a privy councillor, was one of the commissioners of Henry  VIII’s will, which left the crown to Edward, Mary and Elizabeth in turn; later, he became a member of Edward  VI’s regency council and in 1553 helped to draft up Edward’s will, which altered the succession in favour of Lady Jane Grey. It is possible that he was instrumental in commissioning the Boughton picture, and included Somers (who was especially close to the king in his later years) in gratitude for facilitating access to Henry, or that Somers commissioned it for presentation to him. Given his involvement, Montagu would no doubt have appreciated a painting of the Tudor succession that he had endorsed.

There is an engraving of the Boughton picture by Francesco Bartolozzi of Florence (1727–1815), a prolific Italian engraver who had assisted Richard Dalton, George III’s librarian, with the acquisition of new works of art before being invited to London in 1764, where he remained for 40 years under the king’s patronage. Between 1792 and 1800, Bartolozzi executed a number of engravings of Holbein’s drawings at Windsor. There is no record of his visiting Boughton or Northamptonshire, but an artist under royal patronage would have enjoyed an entrée to the houses of the nobility and access to their private collections.

The Boughton picture – or the original version – would no doubt have been thought worth engraving because of its famous sitters, and Bartolozzi’s familiarity with the Royal Collection over many decades would have ensured his recognition of the importance of the picture. Frederick Madden, in his Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary (1831), mentions that copies of this engraving were in the British and French royal collections and that one had been in the collection of Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill.

Bartolozzi’s c1800 engraving of the royal family, after a painting on display at Ditton Park, which is itself a version of the Boughton picture. (Copyright Mary Evans Picture Library) 

The proliferation of these engravings suggests that the original picture may have been fairly well known, yet its whereabouts has remained elusive. In 1964, a version of the Boughton painting, possibly the original, was hanging at Ditton Park, once a Tudor royal manor. Later it came into the possession of the family of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, from whom it was purchased by the Admiralty in 1917. It is now a conference centre owned by a commercial company.

We are grateful to Susan Tomkins, heritage education officer and archivist to Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, for uncovering a reference to the Ditton Park picture in a probate inventory and valuation of 1884, compiled after the death of the Fifth Duke of Buccleuch. In a list of the works in the picture gallery at Ditton Park is the entry “Henry VIII and other figures. School of Holbein”. The Ditton Park image remained with the duke’s widow until her death in 1895, when it passed to her son, Henry, First Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Susan Tomkins has also suggested that the original Tudor picture was destroyed in the fire that gutted Montagu (Southampton) House in Bloomsbury in 1686, when family tradition has it that other important paintings were lost.

Whether this was its fate or not, it is possible that more than one copy was made of the picture for different branches of the family, and that a copy was left at Ditton Park in 1917, because it was not thought to be of great value or quality. At the time of going to press, we are still trying to trace the original of the Boughton picture.

Yet even if the Boughton painting is a copy, it is valuable to historians in that it provides us with a hitherto unknown image of the young Elizabeth – and strongly suggests that the picture of the ‘unknown lady’ in the National Portrait Gallery, and other related images, are all portraits of Elizabeth as princess. As such, it provides us with a rare early glimpse of the woman who was to become one of the most painted monarchs in history, and who, as the years advanced, hid behind the increasingly stylised ‘mask of youth’ of the Virgin Queen. 

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