While it is unusual for a museum to launch a campaign to save a painting for the nation before it has been sold (and before a buyer applies for a license to take it out of the country), Director of RMG Kevin Fewster said it was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire this remarkable portrait of Elizabeth I, so that it can be permanently shown in a public collection for the first time in its history, and safeguard its future”.
The work itself is simply attributed ‘English school c.1590’. It is one of a number of versions of the ‘Armada’ portrait painted to commemorate the failed invasion of England by the Spanish in 1588.
Other examples can be found in Woburn Abbey – a painting which is attributed to George Gower (c.1546-1596) – and also in The National Portrait Gallery – a work by ‘an unknown English artist’ dated to c.1588.
Designed to be a spectacle of power and majesty, the portrait is packed with symbolism but its large size and horizontal format is unusual for a Tudor portrait.
Elizabeth's hand on the globe is a clear symbol of worldly power and the Imperial crown to her right symbolises her equality with the Holy Roman Emperor. The mermaid to the lower right points to her command of the seas. Her dress not only proclaims her rank but is covered in precious pearls from the sea, a symbol of virginity.
The current picture is believed to have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake and it is known to have been in the possession of his descendants since at least 1775. The oil painting on oak panel, however, is in a fragile condition and the RMG say that that the acquisition would not only enable it to be placed in an ‘ideal home’ but also to allow it to benefit from the museums’ conservation expertise.
They intend to hang the work at the Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace where Elizabeth I was born, which is reopening later this year following restoration.
The campaign to acquire the work has already begun with the The Art Fund having committed a grant of £1m and RMG contributing £400,000 itself. The price of the portrait, net of tax, is £10m which means the remaining £8.6m will need to be raised through a fundraising campaign.
A consortium of supporters has pledged to match all public donations, pound for pound and the RMG is seeking donations from trusts, funds, foundations and individuals.
Donations can be made at artfund.org/armada or by calling 0844 415 4100.