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'Queen Elizabeth I: The Pelican Portrait', called Nicholas Hilliard (about 1573)

Artwork Highlight, 1998 talk at the Walker Art Gallery


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This picture was painted about 1574, when Elizabeth was aged about 41, and is known as The Pelican Portrait owing to the brooch Elizabeth wears at her breast. The painting was given to the Walker Art Gallery in 1945. Previously it belonged to the Earls of Suffolk, a branch of the Howard family. According to Howard family tradition, the picture was given to them by Queen Elizabeth. However, there is no firm evidence to confirm this. 

The painting is very similar in style to a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard dated  1572 which is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Hilliard is known to have painted large oil portraits of the Queen. The Walker Art Gallery’s picture may contain some work carried out by a member of Hilliard workshop.

There is another portrait of Elizabeth, now also in the National Portrait Gallery,  which is  called  'The Phoenix  Portrait.'  This is virtually the same size and composition as the Walker’s portrait but is in reverse. This proves that the same pattern or ‘cartoon’ has been used for both pictures and turned round. However, the portraits appear to have been painted by different artists. The quality of painting in The Pelican Portrait is better than the Phoenix, particularly in the handling of the hair and lace, and in the indication of space.  Differences in the style of the costume indicate a later date of 1575/76 for the 'Phoenix Portrait'. This suggests that Hilliard or one of his more senior assistants did most of the work on the Walker picture and another follower or assistant executed The Phoenix Portrait to his master's design.

In his book ‘A Treatise Concerning The Arte of Limning’, Hilliard claimed Holbein as his artistic  model.  Written about 1600, this book is the most important source of information about Elizabethan painting techniques.  However, the conception of Hilliard's portrait is very different to that of Holbein's ‘Henry VIII’| to this in the Walker’s collection.

Elizabeth's portrait is smaller, and is a half-length view. Hilliard did not use body language and facial expression to communicate the character of the monarch. Instead the Queen was treated as a formal, stylised image, almost like  a religious  icon where symbols and the elaborate detailing of her costume told of her status and achievements.

Although at this time, many continental Renaissance painters were trying to depict figures and space with precise realism, Hilliard shows little interest in the rendering of three-dimensional space. The painting appears flat with the emphasis on decorative effect in the use of pattern, colour and elegant line.  The background is plain blue with a shadow cast behind the Queen to give some suggestion of solidity. Had he chosen to show the details of a room or palace as Holbein did, these would have distracted from the intricacies of the figure. In working in  this way, Hilliard was following  the native English tradition of painting which was based around the art of the miniaturist or "limner".  This required painting on a tiny scale and a concentration on flat, decorative effects. Strong three-dimensional effects created by the use of shadows were not necessary in the small-scale medium of miniature, and would have disturbed the overall decorative effect.

Elizabeth's face is particularly flat-looking with hardly any indication of modelling or shadows or the facial lines of a woman in her early forties. This contrasts with the treatment of the jewellery, for example. The rounded pearls are painted three-dimensionally with glistening highlights. Elizabeth preferred to avoid shadows on her face in portraits because they obscured the face and would not be flattering to aging features. Her skin is very pale - Elizabeth displays a fashionably pure white complexion.  

Elizabeth's opinions on the use of shadows are recorded in Hilliard's book ‘The Arte of Limning’, in which the artist provides a fascinating account of the queen sitting for a portrait:

The Queen had apparently noticed the many different ways in which  artists painted  shadows. She remarked (mistakenly) that the Italians, who had the reputation as the best artists, did not use shadows. She asked Hilliard  why there  was  such diversity ..."seeing that best to  show oneself needeth no shadow, but rather the open light." Hilliard  agreed with  the  Queen, saying that strong shadows were used  by  some artists to make the figure stand out more clearly when seen  from a  distance, but "which limning work needeth not" as it is seen close-up. The Queen accepted this and consequently chose to sit for the portrait " the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all..."

Nearly all portraits of Elizabeth show evidence of her preference for a white shadowless face. Elizabeth's pale complexion was highly fashionable and was achieved with face powder. Suntans were associated with peasants working in the fields. The wearing of cosmetics in England began around the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. The fashion came mainly from Italy - foreign ambassadors commented favourably on the natural complexions of Englishwomen compared with the heavily painted faces of Italians.  White powder, rouge and lip colouring were the standard cosmetics used by Elizabethan ladies. Face powder was often made from white lead and was highly damaging to the complexion - an alternative was ground alabaster or starch.  Rouge might also be made from a white lead base plus a colouring dye. Recent cleaning suggests that the Walker's picture had more rosy modelling on the faces, which has since been rubbed off. Lips were painted with a pencil made from ground alabaster or plaster paste mixed with colouring. Finally the make-up was preserved by covering it with a thin layer of egg white glaze.

Hilliard did not represent Elizabeth's power through a strong and tough pose like Henry's because at the time this would have been considered inappropriate for her sex. Instead, her power is communicated by immense wealth - Jewels seem to cover every inch of her costume and on her head she is wearing an elaborate jewelled coronet.

The artist does not seem interested in conveying much of her personality although her pursed lips give a stern air to her mask-like face. Her hands are  not  used  to convey any characteristic  gesture, but are relaxed and hold a leather pouch or glove. Elizabeth is often shown holding something in her portraits, as it gave an excuse to display her long, elegant hands of which she was very proud.

Elizabeth's dress is red plum velvet richly decorated with pearls and emeralds. The bodice and large padded sleeve rolls are slashed, with fine linen drawn out from beneath for ornament. Underneath she wears a lawn "partlet" or vest with voluminous sleeves embroidered with Tudor roses in black silk. A complete covering of almost- transparent fine net, flecked with gold, protects the embroidery.

On her right arm, Elizabeth wears a wide jewelled armlet, while round her left arm, she wears a narrow, red velvet hanging sleeve. This has no practical function - it is purely decorative. On her curled hair she wears a coronet decorated with pearls and jewels, and round her neck a chain or "carcanet" of gold enamel links set with diamonds and pearls.

Much detailed research has been done on Elizabeth's wardrobe thanks to the survival of two important inventories (lists of clothes, jewels, etc) dated 1600 and 1604. However, it has not been possible to match specific items of clothing and costume in her portraits to those described in the inventories. Her clothes were altered and restyled many times to adapt to changing fashions and make the most of the costly materials. A number of Pelican jewels are known, but none fit exactly with that shown in the portrait.

Signs and symbols form the most important method of communication used in this portrait. Educated Elizabethan audiences would have been used to unravelling the complex meanings of the imagery. Symbolism was also much used in  he literature of the period, as can be seen, for example, in Shakespeare's verse and plays and in Edmund Spenser's poem "The Faerie Queen".  

The principal signs are:

  • The pelican: (Brooch or pendant). There was a traditional belief that the mother pelican pecked at her own breast to feed her young, and died so that they might live. Consequently the pelican was a sign of Christ's sacrifice and Resurrection. In the context of the picture, it meant that Elizabeth is the mother of the Church of England and would sacrifice her life for her people.
  • The Tudor Rose: The emblem of the Tudor family with the royal crown above to show her regal status. The Tudor Rose combines the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York, showing that it was the Tudors who united the two sides to end the War of the Roses. The rose is the dominant motif in the portrait, repeated in the pattern of her blouse, echoed on her costume, and possibly suggested by the form of her fan.
  • The fleur-de-lys (Lily Flower): this is the emblem of France, and symbolises Elizabeth's claim to the throne of France - she signed herself Queen of England and France and had not renounced the traditional aspirations of English monarchs to territorial rule in France, even though the last piece of French territory, Calais, had been lost during the reign of her sister Mary. The fleur-de-lys is also the emblem of Scotland, but it is more likely that it is France which is referred to in this context. Today it can be found as the emblem of the Scout and Guide movement.
  • The cherries: (Over her ear) These are a sign for sweetness and a reward for virtue. Traditionally an attribute of the Virgin Mary, they were known as the `Fruit of Paradise', and thus symbolised Heaven - the Divine reward for the Virtuous.
  • The fan of feathers: this is made from exotic ostrich feathers imported from the New World. A similar fan was presented to Elizabeth every year by a group of City Merchants.
  • The thornless rose: (The red rose worn on her bodice) This is another symbol of the Virgin Mary, suggesting that Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was married to England in the same way that Mary was married to the Church.
  • The glove or the leather pouch: If this is a pouch, it must be significant due to its central position in Elizabeth's hand. One theory as to the painting’s origin is that  it  may  have been commissioned by the group of City merchants who presented the fan, in order to commemorate the granting of some rights  and privileges by the crown. It could be documents relating to this which Elizabeth holds in the pouch, or simply the folded vellum documents themselves. The balance of evidence from other portraits is, however, that it is a glove - a sign of elegance.

Images of Elizabeth were very important. The Queen presented likenesses of herself to foreign rulers as diplomatic gifts and to prospective suitors as part of her various abortive marriage negotiations. She also used them to reward faithful subjects, as may have been the case with the Walker’s picture. Many portraits   were commissioned independently of the crown by loyal citizens - to own a portrait of the queen was a declaration of loyalty, particularly in the 1570s when England was increasingly isolated and Elizabeth was excommunicated as a Protestant heretic. Images of Elizabeth were available to a wide range of the population through the cheaper media of prints - both woodcuts and engravings.

Images of Elizabeth took on a semi-mystical, icon-like quality - badges of Elizabeth were worn for protection; an attack on Elizabeth's picture was seen as a direct and harmful attack on her person. For example in France, under The Catholic League, Elizabeth's portrait was publicly burnt and even hung upon a gallows.

The demand for royal images and the icon-like regard for them can be partly explained by the vacuum left after the removal of religious images from Churches as part of the Anglican Reformation. In the Elizabeth image cult that emerged, the Virgin Queen took over many of the functions and attributes of the Virgin Mary and many traditional religious symbols and concepts were incorporated into Royal Portraiture, such as the cherries and the Thornless Rose.

Elizabeth was extremely sensitive about her likeness. Sir Walter Raleigh, in the introduction to his History of the World, records how she caused all portraits of her made by unskillful "common Painters" to be cast in the fire. This no doubt refers to the action of the Privy Council in  July 1596. All public officers were ordered to aid the Queen's Serjeant Painter in seeking out unseemly portraits of her which were to her "great offence".

There are a number of contemporary descriptions of portraits of Elizabeth which, it was declared, did not do the Queen justice.This may have been courtiers' flattery, but existing portraits do offer very varied evidence of her appearance. Not only does the colour of her eyes and hair vary but the whole structure of her face is inconsistent. In her later years there is a marked tendency for portraits to show her looking younger and often her face is shown as a blank white mask. Elizabeth seems to have been reluctant to sit for artists - documentary evidence establishes that she was painted by, and probably sat for, at least five painters including Hilliard. Her solution to the problem of ensuring quality and accuracy while satisfying the great demand, was that there should be an official approved  version of her portrait to act as a pattern for all other artists to copy.

This was the essence of a draft proclamation of 1563 "against  debased images". It does not seem to have had much effect, as in 1575 the Painter Stainers' Company petitioned the Queen to take action against shoddy workmanship. In 1581 a charter and Book of Ordinances was issued to regulate the painters' craft. Furthermore artists were not to wander "in and about" the streets selling portraits of the Queen as they had been doing. In 1584 a draft patent was drawn up between George Gower, the Serjeant Painter of the time, and Hilliard, the court miniaturist, to share between them a monopoly in the production of portraits of the Queen. This failed to materialise and unofficial images were still produced to meet the enormous demand. Elizabeth never established a single court painter with a large enough workshop to sustain the production of the royal image "en masse". This problem of controlling royal portraiture was not solved until Charles I appointed Van Dyck, with his extensive studio, to be official court portraitist.

Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547 - 1619) was a miniaturist or limner and goldsmith. He was born in Exeter, the son of a goldsmith; apprenticed in London 1562 to goldsmith and enameller Robert Brandon whose daughter he later married. He became a very successful portraitist in London and in 1572/3 was appointed limner and goldsmith to the Queen. Elizabeth was a less generous patron of the arts than her father - she never granted Hilliard an annuity. To support his family and his evidently extravagant life style, Hilliard was forced to paint miniatures on commission for a broad spectrum of society. In 1576 Hilliard went to France in search of work and "knowledge". It seems there was some dissatisfaction with the flat, "old-fashioned" style of the Pelican and Phoenix portraits and he went abroad to improve his skills.

In 1575 Elizabeth had sat for the Italian painter Federigo Zuccaro, who visited England briefly that year. The drawing produced at that sitting was probably the model for the Darnley Portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. This has been attributed to Zuccaro. It is painted in a more naturalistic "Renaissance" style, with much looser and bolder handling of paint than used by native English artists. Rather than Hilliard's use of floating symbols to denote status, the crown and sceptre are placed in the space behind Elizabeth. Zuccaro's painting was to serve as a very influential face-pattern for other artists over the next decade. Hilliard returned to England in 1578 with his style enriched by the softer refined manner of the French court painters, although his work for Elizabeth up to 1590 was mainly confined to miniatures and other small scale portrait media, such as medallions and woodcuts. The task of producing larger oil portraits of the Queen was given to George Gower, Sergeant Painter from 1581, and later to Flemish-born Isaac Oliver (c.1560 - 1617). However Oliver's revealing miniature of the aging Queen, painted from life in 1592 did not provide an acceptable image. Subsequent engravings based upon it were destroyed as they caused "great offence". In the last years of her reign Elizabeth turned once more to her miniaturist Hilliard who could be relied upon to create a formalized "mask of youth", celebrating her eternal beauty and majesty with gorgeous surface detail and elaborate symbolism.

The picture is painted in oils on a wooden panel. The technique is similar to a miniature painting. Paint was applied with a tiny squirrel hair brush. Because of the flatness of the picture, and the lack of build up of shadows, it would not be necessary to use the many layers of glazes which Holbein's technique required. Highlights and thin white linear detail were added last.

Miniature techniques

Paint was applied directly on to a vellum surface (fine parchment made of calf's skin), using a very fine brush or feather. The powdered pigment was mixed with gum Arabic and laid out in mussel shells ready for use. (Sharon Trotter, 'Tudor Portraits at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool: A Teachers’ Resource Pack', 1994)

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