Last week I took the short ride over to Greenwich to come face to face with the three surviving versions of the famous Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I which are on public display together in a free exhibition at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. The exhibition, entitled 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 Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, circa 1588 © National Maritime Museum, London
The Armada Portraits are considered one of the most iconic images in British history and commemorates the most famous conflict in Elizabeth’s reign when the Spanish Armada failed in their attempt to invade England in 1588. Royal Museums Greenwich showcases its own version of the Armada Portrait alongside the two other surviving versions, from the collections of Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery.
The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. From the Woburn Abbey Collection
For all the fame of the Armada Portraits, very little is known about them, they were believed to have been painted shortly after the Armada, in 1588. The origins of the paintings and artists are shrouded in mystery with some experts suggesting that three different artists or studios could be responsible for the three principal Armada Portraits working from a single template.
Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist, circa 1588 © National Portrait Gallery, London
The Queen’s House is a wonderful setting for the exhibition which presents an unprecedented opportunity for visitors to explore closely the three iconic depictions of Elizabeth I. In all three versions, the Queen is shown in a rich gold-embroidered and jewelled dress with seascapes showing different episodes of the Spanish Armada story.
The Queen’s House is part of Royal Museums Greenwich. It is 17th century Palladian villa, designed by Inigo Jones, which is situated on the site of the original Greenwich Palace complex, which was a major political centre of the Tudor dynasty and the birthplace of Elizabeth I herself.
So in many respects, Greenwich with its Tudor and Maritime history is the ideal place to full understand how the paintings relate to an important part of British history, England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada was considered one of the greatest military victories in English history and Elizabeth was celebrated in portraits, pageants, and the literature of the day. Evidence of the Elizabethan era has largely disappeared from Greenwich, these portraits are a reminder that for hundreds of years that this part of London was the centre of British power and prestige.
Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I is open from 13 February – 31 August 2020 at the Queen’s House in Greenwich alongside the Woburn Treasures exhibition that runs from 13 February to 17 January 2021, both are free to visit.