Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: 'Elizabeth I and Her People' at the National Portrait Gallery

It comes as no surprise that in a year which celebrates 60 years since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II we should have another exhibition about a Queen called Elizabeth.

This time it's Elizabeth I and Her People which opened today at the National Portrait Gallery. It will continue until 5 January 2014.

(The first Elizabeth exhibition was last year's very successful exhibition - see my Review: 'The Queen - Art and Image' at the NPG 24 May 2012)

Key aspects of the exhibition

A lot of thought has gone into the presentation of the exhibition. I was very impressed as soon as I walked through the door.

Entrance to the exhibition - about the land at the time of Elizabeth
On the left a fair at Bermondsey
On the right Queen Elizabeth I on one of her processions
They've kept the BP structure and built around it to create archways and windows which help to reinforce the notion that this exhibition is about art from some 400-450 years ago.  Queen Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603) reigned from 17 November 1558 until her death

A view looking back through the exhibition
the display cases show female and male accoutrements of dress - hair pins, pomanders and guns!
On the left is a Family Tree - with pictures of the different individuals
It's certainly a very attractive exhibition in terms of structure, the hang and display cases. However I do wonder whether people will be able to appreciate it as I was able to do yesterday once the Wolfson Gallery is full of people!  I often think the NPG could do with a lot more space for its temporary exhibitions!

We walk into a quick introduction to what Elizabethan life looks like - in terms of the extent of Elizabethan England

I'm a complete mapoholic so I was immediately consumed with interest for the two very old maps at the beginning of the exhibition. Here's the interactive zoomable image of the map shown below on loan from the British Library.  It gives a very good sense of how big London is. I'd have loved to have seen the people in the portraits located in terms of where they lived or worked in London.  The links below go to the Tudor descriptions of the building

Panorama of London by William Smith (1550-1618)
View of London, Westminster and Southwark, ink and pigments on vellum, British Library
From right to left you can see
the Tower of London on the extreme right, where Elizabeth's mother was beheaded on Tower Green
complete with a real moat, now in decline as a royal residence
"old" London Bridge with some of the 200 buildings situated on it,
Southwark Cathedral (already 500 years old in Tudor times!)
the round bull and bear-baiting pits at Bankside (where Tate Modern is now situated)
Old St Paul's Cathedral after the spire was destroyed by lightning
and before the Great Fire (left of centre on the horizon)
and the Palace of Whitehall where Henry VII had lived as an adult
Westminster Hall - which now forms part of the Houses of Parliament
and Westminster Abbey to the extreme left
Enough of maps!

There's a lot of portraits of the Queen and the nobility - major people at her court. I particularly enjoyed ones less often seen- such as the simply massive painting from Hardwicke Hall - which is best appreciated while looking through the 'window' from the next gallery.

Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I
(Left) Elizabeth I (known as the Darnley portrait) by an unknown continental artist
(centre) Elizabeth I - normally hangs at Hardwick Hall
(right) Elizabeth I, the Ermine portrait - attributed to Nicholas Hilliard
Some of the portraits of the Queen were produced from templates. This explains why she keeps the same facial features for so long!  The exhibition also emphasises the very many different ways in which people accessed her portrait - including via the coinage of the realm.  Apparently one of the smart things she did when she became Queen was to call in all the coins and then had them reissued with her head on all the coins!

However it's not just about the Queen. 

Nobility, Gentry and the Moorish Amabassador
That's Sir Walter Raleigh on the left - with a surprise within the painting
Following on from the Queen are portraits of the nobility and gentry associated with Elizabeth. These are typically people with land, titles and money.  There are some amazing small paintings in watercolour and gouache.  The room also displays portraits of two well known seafarers - Sir Walter Raleigh and Sire Martin Frobisher

In Tudor times, there's a major rise in the middle classes and big growth in the population of the City of London.  There's a consequential need for the provision of goods and services for these people and the professional and merchant classes - and in time a need for portrait artists to serve the middle classes 

Portraiture became very popular during the Tudor period.  The exhibition also includes portraits of gentry (people with money and land - but typically not titles) and civilians - mainly the merchant class (entrepreneurs) and professionals - bankers, clergymen, lawyers, doctors goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights - and even an artist!  This is an era when portraiture started to matter to other people who could also afford to commission a portrait. However portraits continued to have a lot of symbolic content - not so much about the person so much as an advert for who this person is and the nature of the way they'd like to present themselves to the world.

Room 4: paintings of merchants, bankers and professional men and women
A set of Tudor drawing instruments c.1565-75Lent by the Trustees of the British Museum
The exhibition has a fascinating collection of artifacts in display cases
which relate to the portraits and the people portrayed

In my view, there are a lot of similarities in themes with the Facing the Modern - The Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery which I visited the day before.  If you're coming to the exhibition, you might like to see two exhibitions back to back and see what you spot as being the enduring themes relating to portraiture

The exhibition doesn't focus much on artistic practices so much as the end result - how people could be portrayed during the time of Elizabeth.  However there are a few pointers:
    • portraits of the time could involve one painter painting the head and other painters painting costumes on a mannequin
    • drawings from Tudor times are rare.  However this exhibition includes what appears to be a preparatory drawing for a portrait of Elizabeth 1
    • there also examples of miniatures and the use of cameos - as rings.
The Tudors were extremely interested in costume and dress - hence the emphasis in portraits tends to be on what they wore.  Who knew that plain black cloth was a sign of wealth - due to the quantity of dye required to produce quality black cloth?  

and finally..... they were absolutely obsessed with detail.  Some of the embroidering and jewellery displayed in portraits is absolutely fantastic. Those who like realism need to come and study some of the paintings in this exhibition.  The level of detail portrayed at times is quite staggering.  They're not so interested in perspective or proportion.  Psychology plays no part in their concepts of what portraiture is about.  Their paintings are all about telling you who this person is and what their standing is.  They remind me somewhat of Dutch Still Life paintings which tell a story - except these are portraits

The skirt of the Hardwick Hall portrait - with pictures of nature - animals, birds, flowers and fruit
My favourite portrait was one which was a lot less formal than the rest.  This is a portrait of a noble woman at her dressing table.

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton

Digital resources

I do wish the NPG would provide much clearer navigation to the narrative about and images of the exhibition online.  A link on the home page for the exhibition to what is described as an introductory film by the curator (which I'd already seen - hence why I didn't initially click it) vastly underplays what's on offer.

Here's the digital resources which are available about this exhibition

The films (plural) focus on the different rooms of the exhibition.  My criticism would be I'd have liked to see lot less talking heads and much more images from the exhibition.
There's never going to be enough space to supplant the desire to buy a catalogue - and indeed more information and more images might actually lead to more visitors!  That's as well as being helpful to people who are unable to visit.  In this age of digital communication, I do think a National Gallery also needs to think long and hard about how it can communicate its exhibitions to people who don't live in or can't get to London.  The game might be fun - but I'd rather see investment in an abbreviated digital catalogue - with more about the key themes of the exhibition.

How to see the exhibition

Advance booking is highly recommended for this exhibition. The gallery used for the exhibition is one which can get very hot at times.  However I'm assured that the numbers visiting at any one time will be limited - via timed ticketing.  Hence if you want to see this exhibition at a time convenient to you, I'd start booking your tickets now.

This is an exhibition which is bound to be very popular with schools and school children doing the Tudors in primary school.  If you want to avoid lots of small children, I'd advise visiting after 3pm - which is usually when they start to disappear.

For those bringing children to London to see the exhibition you might like to also take in an associated exhibition.  The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels at the Museum of Londo  ls and gemstones which were recovered in . 11 October 2013 – 27 April 2014.

Other reviews of the exhibition

  • Daily TelegraphElizabeth I and her People, National Portrait Gallery, review - Absolutely pitiful and ignorant.  The so-called "art critic" Alastair Smart judges portraits of the 16th century by standards associated with the 20th and 21st centuries i.e. that portraits should be about the people and not their status.  Has he ever heard of putting the cart before the horse? How can you judge portraiture by concepts which have not yet been invented? The whole point of the curator's scholarly endeavours is to demonstrate that Tudor times was the first period where painters started to make portraits of ordinary people - but these were still of professionals.  The whole thesis of the article assumes that Holbein had some amazing psychological insight into the people he painted - as opposed to being an excellent draughtsman and painter. 
  • The GuardianSir Walter Raleigh's crescent moon compliment to Elizabeth I revealed opts for the latest press release topic and an interesting story - but says little about the exhibition.  Maybe they didn't actually visit the exhibition?

Exhibition details

ELIZABETH I AND HER PEOPLE Supported by The Weiss Gallery
10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014, National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Gift Aid ticket prices: (includes voluntary Gift Aid donation of 10% above standard price): Adult £13.50, Concs. £12.50/£11.50 
  • Standard ticket prices: Adult £12.50, Concs £11.30 / £10.40)
Elizabeth I and Her People is curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator and its Curator of Sixteenth Century Portraits. She is the author of A Guide to Tudor & Jacobean Portraits (2008) and Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite, 1540–1620 (2012).


  1. So glad to read your take on this exhibit. I would give my eye teeth to see it, but I can't make it to London by January 5th, unfortunately. The mounting of the show does look very attractive.

  2. As a resident of the metropolitan Kansas City, USA I have no hope of visiting this exhibit but I must express my heartfelt thanks to you for covering and linking got so much information! I enjoy all your posts and rarely comment, but your diligent, intelligent posts deserve a be late "thank you"!


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