Those whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.
The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.
Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.
A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.
But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.
For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.
There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.
Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.