On a recent excursion to London, my successful interview at London College of Communication, I had some spare time and spent it wondering around the National Portrait Gallery. I made my way up to the top floor, to the tudor portraits and spent a long time mulling over the various portraits. I noticed a lot of them had been credited to an 'Unknown Artist', which I found upsetting in a way. Why do we not know who executed all these great works?
After a lot of reflection, I cam to the conclusion that I wasn't keen on the Tudor style. The faces were oddly flat, and seemed to be from a time before perspective. Everything was quite round, and quite lifeless. But then, in another room, I discovered a larger than life size, very grand portrait of Queen Elizabeth. There were still artistic quirks which jarred slightly in my opinion, but on the whole it was very pleasing.
It wasn't specifically the painting that inspired me, but the woman herself. This was a powerful woman, perhaps the most powerful woman who has ever existed, and here she was, caught on canvas, forever half smiling at me down her snooty nose. She exudes confidence and an easiness. She lives as a demi god, reigning over many different lands, knowing that she commands respect from the other great kings of the world.
'I MAY HAVE THE FEEBLE BODY OF A WOMAN, BUT I HAVE THE HEART AND STOMACH OF A KING.'
A name I kept encountering when looking up portraits of the Virgin Queen was Nicholas Hilliard. Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547 – 7 January 1619) was an English goldsmith and limner best known for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth I and James I of England. He mostly painted small oval miniatures, but also some larger cabinet miniatures, up to about ten inches tall, and at least two famous half-length panel portraits of Elizabeth. He enjoyed continuing success as an artist, and continuing financial troubles, for forty-five years. His paintings still exemplify the visual image of Elizabethan England, very different from that of most of Europe in the late sixteenth century. Technically he was very conservative by European standards, but his paintings are superbly executed and have a freshness and charm that has ensured his continuing reputation as "the central artistic figure of the Elizabethan age, the only English painter whose work reflects, in its delicate microcosm, the world of Shakespeare's earlier plays.
As luck would have it, a few weeks after I had returned from London, giving the Elizabethan art time to settle in my mind and germinate, the 1998 film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett was shown on television. I had never watched it before, under the impression that I did not like Cate Blanchett. Unfortunately, I had mistaking her for Kate Winslett, who I REALLY can't stand, and so was pleasantly surprised with Blanchett's performance. She really impressed me and she reminded of Tilda Swinton. I enjoyed the film and found the cinematography enchanting.
But then came the final 20 minutes, which was completely astounding. It showed Elizabeth's transformation from ordinary young woman to the Queen of Queens. She sheared off her hair, powdered her face white, drew on her features, wore wigs, adopted the most bizarre costume and dress, complete with feathers and trailing pieces of netting and stood before her court as a deity. It was one of the most powerful scenes I think I've ever witnessed.
The following week the sequel was shown; ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE. I watched with enjoyment, but for some reason it didn't seem as powerful as the first. Perhaps it was just a matter of the context in which I watched it. I fully expected not to like the first one, I went into it with grave misgivings and found myself enamoured with it. Going into the second, I expected every moment to be fabulous, every second to be poignant and powerful, which of course would be impossible. Nothing could top the transformation scene in the first, and it really inspired me.
I could see parallels between Queen Elizabeth and the Madonna. Both were powerful. Both were 'Virgins'. Both were Queens. Both became seminal figures in art. Both were strong women in worlds dominated by men. Both have had a profound effect on me.
There is another portrayal of Elizabeth on film which really speaks to me. Well, two actually. The not so important one was Tilda Swinton portraying her in Jarman's Jubilee, where she finds herself in a dystopian punk future, but the other also involves Swinton. In the Sally Potter film Orlando, from the Virginia Woolf novel, the eponymous role played by Swinton features a star turn by Quentin Crisp as the aging Elizabeth. Obviously, I enjoy all gender subversion, but this was marvellous. I've read Crisp's books and to see him perform on film was incredible. He was so hideous, a complete grotesque, but it was enthralling to watch. The costume and make up was astounding as well, it was very surreal, very interesting.