Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. The Armada Portrait was painted when she was in her fifties and commemorates the most famous conflict of her reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in August 1588.
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, English school, c. 1590
Elizabeth gave perhaps her most famous speech to her troops at Tilbury in August 1588, ahead of their victory: 'I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm...'
“This campaign is a huge challenge but we believe in the power of popular support to make great things happen. This picture truly belongs at Greenwich, and having it here for ever is tantalisingly within our grasp.”
The portrait was owned – and may even have been commissioned – by Sir Francis Drake, one of the great heroes of Elizabeth's court, and his descendants are the current owners. It is an outstanding historical document that captures a watershed moment in history, but it also transcends this specific moment in time. Scholars have described it as a definitive representation of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan 'Golden Age'. It has inspired countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film, theatre and television, and has been instrumental in making her one of the most recognisable historical figures today. It is a truly iconic work of art.
An oil painting on oak panels, the painting is unusual for its large size and horizontal format. The two seascapes show: on the left, the English fleet in calm waters with the approaching Spanish Armada, and on the right the Armada ships wrecked on the Irish coast in a storm. Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor, and was designed to be a spectacle of power and majesty.
Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. The egg-shaped object just above her left shoulder might be seen to symbolise if not fertility, then rebirth and eternal life. She is draped in pearls – metaphors for chastity and the moon. On her skirt and her sleeves there are numerous suns embroidered in gold, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers resting above the New World – a signal of her potency as a ruler not just of England, but also of America.
“Royal Museums Greenwich has a once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire this remarkable portrait of Elizabeth I, so that it can be permanently shown in a public collection for the first time in its history, and safeguard its future.”
Royal Museums Greenwich would be the perfect home for this iconic painting, with its fine 16th- and 17th-century collections, maritime setting and world-renowned conservation expertise. If our campaign is successful, the portrait will hang at the newly renovated Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I was born. Plans are underway for a national programme to secure the widest possible audience. The painting is in a fragile condition and bringing it into public ownership now will secure its long-term future, conservation and display.
The price of the portrait, net of tax, is circa £10m. The Art Fund has committed a grant of £1m and Royal Museums Greenwich is contributing £400,000. If the campaign for the remaining £8.6m is successful, the painting will enter public ownership for the first time in its 425-year history and in the 90th birthday year of Queen Elizabeth II.
Please give generously. Donations will be matched pound for pound by a group of private individuals and charitable trusts.