For the first time ever, three famous paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, the Armada Portraits, are going on display together in the same place, at Queen’s House in Greenwich.
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.
The exhibition, Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I, is the first time the paintings have been displayed together in their 430-year history.
The three paintings are from the Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Portrait Gallery and from Woburn Abbey. Both Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery are closing next year for refurbishment work, giving the opportunity for the three paintings to form this triptych of Queens in Greenwich.
All three versions of the Armada Portrait are believed to have been painted shortly after the event, circa 1588. Whilst copies and derivatives of the portrait pattern have been made over the centuries, the three portraits that will be united at the Queen’s House are the only contemporary versions in existence and the only three featuring seascapes that depict episodes from the Spanish Armada in the background.
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. Behind her are two seascapes, depicting different episodes in the Spanish Armada narrative.
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.
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 also have an unparalleled opportunity to study and compare the three paintings in detail.