We are beginning 2014 with a series on Wondrous Objects, those artefacts that stand out even in a rich collection, for their strangeness, their skill, their associations or their historical significance. We begin our series with Jacqueline Simcox, a London-based specialist on Chinese textiles and works of art, who writes on a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I in the famous portrait from Hardwick Hall.
‘It is undoubtedly Elizabeth, her face so familiar to us, the sixty-six year old monarch with haughty, pallid expression, standing on a richly woven carpet, a pair of gloves in her right hand and a circular fan in her left.
‘Why does she stand for her portrait gazing out of the canvas beyond the viewer? What message does it send to us, four hundred years later? Surely it is to show off that dress – nothing being allowed to take away from the glory of the costume, its richness proclaiming wealth and position.
‘Imagine what you would think if you could just stand beside her. You would pause, transfixed by such luxury; unlike anything you had ever seen. Look carefully. The lace ruff alone is a masterpiece of lace-making. Then there is the black velvet gown, with puffed-out sleeves, deepest black, the cost of the dyes beyond the purse of an ordinary citizen and embellished with such a wanton display of jewels; the sleeves with spangles, rubies or was it clever, red-coloured glass made to deceive the eye and make the riches of England outdo all others? The gown’s skirt – more black velvet, adorned with pear-shaped, pearl drops around the edges and circular pearls marching in matched pairs over all the rest – such wealth from foreign divers brought to royal service – all overwhelming value and proclaiming her Virgin status.
‘Remember too the Sumptuary Laws, enacted by Elizabeth, to preserve her right alone to wear such luxury and granted to those few favourites beyond. Who else could afford such a velvet gown, which is not even kept for posterity but lives only in the memory and on the canvas, the pearls removed and reused, too precious to be kept unseen, the velvet handed on, or re-modelled for another costume.
‘Beneath, revealed under the gown, its skirts drawn back like theatre curtains, is a pure creamy-white silk satin kirtle, the glory of the portrait, entrancing the eye. Where did that silk spring from? From Chinese trade, from captured vessels, or Huguenot looms newly set up in London? – speaking of piracy at sea or continental fracas with the old Catholic enemy, but all England’s gain, when such luxury came to these shores. No surprise then that by decree the English aristocracy should plant mulberry trees on their estates to feed the moths who made such wondrous threads and in turn fed the insatiable desire for such cloth.
‘What message does this costume hold? The Virgin Queen, adorned in white, the purity of it all, and at the height of her power – the Armada behind her, the Spanish fleet defeated, and Drake, circling the world for her, bringing back immense wealth to stuff the coffers of England. Now in the year 1599 she could stand here, an all-conquering Queen, admired abroad, and displaying history on her dress.
‘The costume says it all: the creamy silk, stretched on a frame and painted with such verve; the exquisite decoration, each element with its double meaning; and the flowers. First the coloured lilies: red, yellow and pink, reminder of her Virgin status; then the irises and Tudor rose – emblem of royalty, interspersed with joyful butterflies and birds; the songbirds; the kingfisher, the royal swan and goose; and the animals of her kingdom.
‘But hidden danger lurks in the pair of snakes writhing amongst them; perhaps symbols of a fickle court, of male egos vying for position and favours from the Queen. Above all, there are the sea monsters, catching the eye: the whale in central place; dolphins in pairs; a dragon with wings and tusks, rising from the waves; and there, under her left hand, the largest of them all, a true monster to terrify, its curled, lashing tail, long snout and razor teeth, quelled beneath her hand, pressed back into the depths of the dark velvet gown – overcome as were all England’s sea-borne enemies.
‘And what of the fan? Would that survive? Sadly, no. Its circular form of white feathers and small tendrils, playfully adorning its surface, moving provocatively in the slightest breath of air, echoes the moon in mist and Raleigh’s poem, that likens his Queen to Cynthia, goddess of the Moon and controller of the seas, as the Queen controlled her country, seas and land; triumphant ruler over all.’
The Hardwick Portrait is currently on display as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on ‘Elizabeth 1 and her People’. The exhibition ends on the 5th January so you will have to hurry to see it in London. Afterwards it will return to Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire where it is part of the Devonshire Collection.
What would your Wondrous Object be?
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