There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth that’s so well known, so famous, so literally iconic — that it can be a surprise to learn that it exists in real life.
This is the Armada Portrait, and it can be even more surprising to learn that there are three versions of the same image, none of them the same, but all roughly similar.
And this year, for the first time ever, all three are in the same room at the same time for the public to see them side-by-side and compare the differences.
It’s a painting about which so much has been written, talking about he many symbols in the painting at a time when portraits were often tools of power and messages to those who understood the iconography in use.
From the Queen’s hand on the globe, to the pearls showing virginity, to the Crown in the background, the grand cloth of silver dress and the reputed allusions to mermaids and catholic defeat — it’s a message that can keep art historians busy for many hours talking about it.
The painting would also have stood out for their size, and shape — at a time when portraits were taller than wide — as most portraits are today — these paintings are almost square. A shocking change from the norm, and one that was later “corrected” by being cut down to the correct aspect for a painting.
The painting are all thought to be by different artists, but who the artists were is unknown. That also makes the paintings unusual. Normally, an exhibition would splash the name of the artist all over the place – Rembrandt, Leonardo, Titian, Hockney — these three paintings are famous for what they show, not who painted them.
The artist is outshone by the majesty of The Queen.
One was also painted over in later years to bring it up to date as the ships in the background are of a later design, the message of the painting seemingly more important than preserving the artistic integrity of the original. These are political tools not art to look nice on the wall.
The three versions are not thought to have ever been seen by the public together before. One was recently acquired for the nation and is on display in Greenwich, but the other two are at Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery. However, with those venues being closed for refurbishment works, there was a rare opportunity to bring those two paintings to Greenwich to put all three together at last.
They’ve chosen Queen’s House for the display, as it already houses one of the paintings, and has a large art collection in the rooms — which have now been increased with a temporary loan of other treasures from Woburn Abbey.
As for the Armada Portraits, as a display, it’s a bit awkward though, being cramped in to a small room with little space to stand-back and compare the three paintings.
It’s worth standing back though, as while much of the differences are best seen close up, one key difference is best a few feet back — her eyes. In the Woburn painting, the Queen looks into the distance, but in the Greenwich version her eyes follow you around the room.
That said, it’s a rare chance to get to see the three paintings in one place, and as the exhibition is free to visit, should be high up the list of places to visit this year for any fan of art or history.
The exhibition, Faces of a Queen will be on display in the Queen’s House until 31st August.