For the first time ever the three surviving versions of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I are on display together in the Queen’s House in Greenwich (13 February – 31 August 2020). And a major collaboration with Woburn Abbey means even more significant works from their private art collection are on display in Greenwich too. If you do one special exhibition in Britain this year, it should be this one. This is a once and a lifetime opportunity to see these three paintings together in one place.
The Queen’s House is one of the most important buildings in the country and one of the first in the Palladian style. Let’s start by knowing more about the venue.
Anne of Denmark, wife of James I (reigned 1603–25) commissioned Inigo Jones (1573–1652) to design The Queen’s House. Work stopped when Anne died young in 1619 but restarted in 1629 when James’s son Charles I gave Greenwich to his queen, Henrietta Maria. The building was completed in 1635 reflecting Renaissance ideas of mathematical and Classical proportion and harmony.
Henrietta Maria had little time to enjoy the Queen’s House as The Civil War broke out in 1642. She went into exile in France (her father was Henri IV of France) and her husband, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649.
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Henrietta Maria’s son Charles II refitted the house for her temporary use in 1662 before she moved to Somerset House.
In the 18th century, the House was used for various ‘grace and favour’ residential purposes, and by the 19th century, it was used to care for the orphan children of seamen. Then in 1934, it became part of the National Maritime Museum and underwent restoration. The last major work was completed for the House’s 400th anniversary in 2016. It is now used as the Museum’s prime fine art venue, showcasing the National Maritime Museum’s outstanding collection. During the 2016 refit, the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I was acquired. (That’s the ‘star’ of the show.)
I have to mention this now, it is completely free to visit The Queen’s House.
Greenwich and The Royal Family
The Queen’s House is situated on the site of the original Greenwich Palace complex, which was a major political and symbolic centre for the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII was born at Greenwich Palace, married two of his wives here and his daughters Elizabeth and Mary were both born in Greenwich.
Several significant moments in Elizabeth’s reign are also known to have taken place at Greenwich, including the Queen witnessing the return of Sir Francis Drake from his circumnavigation of the globe, and her signing of the order to execute Mary, Queen of Scots ‘from Greenwich, in haste’. You can find out more about Greenwich and The Tudors on the Royal Museums Greenwich website.
The refurbishment closure of this historic house on the border of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire can be thanked for the current enhancement of the art display at The Queen’s House.
Woburn Abbey was gifted to Sir John Russell in 1547 by Henry VIII and he was later made an Earl by Henry’s successor Edward VI in 1550. But it took until 1619 for the 4th Earl to choose to make Woburn Abbey the principal family home so it was rebuilt, altered and extended.
For nearly 500 years, the Russell family commissioned and purchased art to record their family history and adorn the walls of their home. The Woburn Abbey collection is recognised as one of the most significant aristocratic collections to survive in the UK. It includes one of the greatest collections of 16th and 17th-century portraiture.
Woburn Abbey closed in September 2019 and is undergoing its biggest refurbishment since it first opened to the public. And it is because of this closure that some of Woburn’s major artworks have been able to come to The Queen’s House.
Woburn Treasures (13 February 2020 – 17 January 2021) means 20 works by distinguished artists such as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Poussin and Canaletto are now hanging alongside works from the national collection of Royal Museums Greenwich. The exhibition is not in one room but has been integrated throughout The Queen’s House galleries.
Boom! Big Hitters From The Start
There isn’t a visitor route you have to follow at The Queen’s House but if you take their suggestion and start in the Headmaster’s Library you get wowed with works by Anthony Van Dyck, Joshua Reynolds and Canaletto in one small room!
This first room introduces the key figures who have formed the Russell family collection at Woburn Abbey. Francis Russell, that 4th Earl of Bedford mentioned earlier, used some of the same craftsmen on the 17th-century refurbishment of Woburn Abbey. He was also highly influential in London as he commissioned Inigo Jones (yes, The Queen’s House architect) to design Covent Garden piazza. He also commissioned Nicholas Stone, later Master Mason to Charles I who also worked on The Queen’s House overseeing the marble floor in the Great Hall.
His son the 5th Earl (also called Francis Russell) bought the Canaletto on display while he was away on his Grand Tour. He was so pleased with the painting he went on to acquire a total of 24 Canaletto artworks.
The next room has a lovely portrait of a young Queen Victoria by German artist Herman Winterhalter after Franz Xaver Winterhalter, as well as stunning De Morgan ware in the centre of the room.
There is also this marble bust of George IV by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantery who was the leading sculptor of the Regency era. It certainly reflects the flamboyant character of a king who was known for his extravagant lifestyle. (I’m looking forward to visiting Brighton soon for Anglotopia magazine to see the Royal Pavillion he built as his pleasure palace.)
Take a diagonal route across the black and white tiled central Great Hall so you can ascend the Tulip Stairs – the first self-supporting spiral stair in Britain.
On the first floor, one side has the King’s rooms and the other the Queen’s.
I’ve kept you waiting long enough to see these famous Armada portraits so head to the Queen’s Presence Chamber to see the three portraits displayed together for the first time in 430 years.
The three versions are from the collections of Woburn Abbey, Royal Museums Greenwich and the National Portrait Gallery. This is the first time they have been brought together on display in their 430-year history.
One of the most iconic images in British history, the Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict in Elizabeth’s reign, the Spanish Armada‘s failed attempt to invade England in 1588. All three versions are believed to have been painted shortly after.
The Armada Portrait composition is a prime example of how portraiture was used to control the public image of Elizabeth I, presenting her as a powerful, authoritative and majestic figure. She gave very few portrait sittings, and instead, pre-approved patterns or portrait designs were circulated for reproduction by multiple studios to keep up with the demand for images of the Queen. Once attributed to the Queen’s Sergeant-Painter, George Gower, some experts have suggested that three different artists or studios could be responsible for the three principal Armada Portraits. By displaying the Armada Portraits together in Greenwich, scholars will have an unparalleled opportunity to study and compare the three paintings in detail.
In both the RMG and Woburn Abbey versions, Elizabeth I’s right hand is resting on a globe showing the Americas, an imperial covered crown on the table behind, a fan made of ostrich feathers in her left hand, and beside her a chair of state. This detail is absent from the National Portrait Gallery version, as this picture, previously a similar format to the other two more horizontal pictures has been cut down, also truncating the seascapes in the background. Both the date of when this alteration occurred and the reasons behind it remain unknown.
In all three versions of the iconic portrait, the dominating figure of the Queen is shown three-quarter-length, in a rich gold-embroidered and jewelled dress, as the epitome of regal magnificence. And the portraits are full of symbolism. Her halo-like golden wig is topped by pearls representing virginity as she was the ‘virgin queen’. The white dress represents purity and the black stands for constancy. The globe embodies England’s colonial and trading ambitions, and the crown refers to England’s quest for overseas domination.
The two seascapes have a double meaning. They tell the story of the Spanish Armada: to the left, the English fleet is sailing towards the Spanish; to the right, Spanish ships are dashing against the west coast of Ireland in a storm. But they also have a metaphorical meaning: the calm scene embodies the supposed peaceful effects of Elizabeth’s good Protestant rule; the storm portrays the perceived chaos of Catholic tyranny under the reign of Philip II of Spain.
Whilst copies and derivatives of the portrait pattern have been made over the centuries, the three portraits here are the only contemporary versions in existence and the only three featuring seascapes that depict different episodes from the Spanish Armada in the background. (The seascapes on the Royal Museums Greenwich were ‘updated’ in the 18th century. Actually, the Woburn Abbey portrait remains the only version of the three that maintains the complete seascapes as they were painted in the 16th century.)
It is a very rare opportunity to see these paintings together and only after did I reflect on how they were presented in the room. It’s a stunning room with an amazing ceiling mural so do ensure you look up too. A partition wall is going across the room diagonally and the Armada portraits are on the side away from the windows. I expect this is to protect the paintings from daylight but it does mean the space to see the paintings has been reduced.
Not since the 1950s, when Woburn Abbey opened to the public, has the Russell family been able to share their private collection with other locations.
As explained above, the artworks are not all in one room but are instead integrated throughout the rooms of The Queen’s House. You can identify them as the Russell family coat of arms is on the artwork label.
Do look out for this portrait of Queen Mary I and Philip II of Spain on display in the Queen’s Privy Chamber on the first floor. Philip’s legs are quite something! Mary was Elizabeth’s predecessor and when she died, Philip proposed to Elizabeth. She delayed giving a direct answer but continued to encourage/allow her privateers to plunder Spanish ships and territories in the Americas.
Through the window in the background, you can see the Thames and the spire of the old St Paul’s Cathedral.
Another highlight is this portrait of Lady Elizabeth Keppel (1762) by Joshua Reynolds. She is wearing the bridesmaid dress she wore for Queen Charlotte’s wedding. (Elizabeth Keppel married Francis Russell, the 5th Earl who bought the Canaletto in the first room.)
Do take time to see the paintings of Greenwich in the room next to this portrait where you can admire paintings by J.M.W. Turner and Canaletto opposite each other.
Each room you enter, you find more ‘treasures’. There are self-portraits by Frans Hals and Rembrandt, Meissen porcelain and so much more.
The additions from Woburn Abbey are a delight to see here. And the fact it’s all free to see is a real treat.
Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I
Dates: 13 February – 31 August 2020
Dates: 13 February 2020 – 17 January 2021
Address: Queen’s House, Romney Rd, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Official Website: www.rmg.co.uk/queens-house
A note for your diary, the Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits exhibition is at the National Maritime Museum from 3 April to 31 August 2020.