Conservators have uncovered a small painted sea in a portrait of 16th-century adventurer Sir Walter Ralegh, which they believe reveals the depth his devotion to Queen Elizabeth I.
Underneath centuries of old over paint, a team at the National Portrait Gallery has discovered a small section of wavy blue water at the top left-hand corner of a 1588 painting, by an unknown English artist ,of Elizabeth I’s courtier, Ralegh.
The sea can be made out just below an emblem of a crescent moon, possibly indicating Ralegh’s willingness to be controlled by the queen in the same way the moon controls the tides.
Elizabeth was often compared to the moon goddess Cynthia, and experts say the newly-revealed water must refer to the explorer himself, using the pun Walter/water.
Widely understood as a visual statement of Ralegh’s devotion to the queen, in the painting he wears her colours of black and white, and his costume is covered with pearls, which were associated with Elizabeth as symbols of virginity.
Ralegh’s letters to Elizabeth also included coded references to the moon and water. The discovery of the hidden sea suggests the correspondence, once thought to have been written while he was imprisoned for his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, in 1592, in fact date from the period of the painting.
The portrait is one of only a few contemporary paintings of Ralegh in his prime. It was painted in 1588, the year of the attack by the Spanish Armada, when Ralegh’s reputation and influence soared.
The previous year, he had been involved in surveying England’s coastal defences, and was nominated to succeed Christopher Hatton as Captain of the Guard.
The discovery of the hidden sea in the painting was made during the making of the National Portrait Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People, which opens on Thursday.
Curator Dr Tarnya Cooper said: “We know it was the patron rather than the painter who would have helped to devise the content of portrait compositions at this time. Therefore this discovery provides exciting new evidence about Ralegh’s creative ingenuity.
“It shows how portraiture, like poetry was used as a tool to present personal messages of devotion to the queen.”
University of Sussex scholar and exhibition advisor, Professor Andrew Hadfield, said: “This fascinating discovery suggests that Raleigh may have regarded his position at court as perilous and unstable well before his secret marriage.”
Elizabeth I & Her People runs from 10 October 2013 to 5 January 2014. Supported by The Weiss Gallery, the exhibition will feature more than 100 objects including accessories, artefacts, costumes, coins, jewellery and crafts.
We’ll be examining a number of pieces from the exhibition in the November issue of BBC History Magazine – on sale from 10 November. We’ll also be talking about life in Elizabethan England with curator Tarnya Cooper on a future podcast.