The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, English school, c. 1590.
LONDON.- Today, Royal Museums Greenwich with the Art Fund, the national charity for art, launched a major fundraising campaign to save the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (c 1590).
The portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth’s reign (1558 – 1603), the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. One of the definitive representations of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan era, it is amongst the most famous images of British history, a staple in school textbooks and the inspiration for countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film or on stage.
The price net of tax will be c. £10 million. The Art Fund has committed a grant of £1m and Royal Museums Greenwich is contributing an unprecedented £400,000. If the fundraising campaign for the remaining £8.6 million is successful, the painting will enter public ownership for the first time in its 425-year history and in the 90th birthday year of our present Queen. As part of the national collection it would hang in the Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, which was a major political and symbolic centre for the Tudor dynasty and the birthplace of Elizabeth I herself. The Queen’s House sits at the heart of the Greenwich World Heritage Site and is reopening later this year following major restoration.
Painted when Elizabeth was in her late 50s, the Armada portrait is among the greatest of contemporary eulogies to this celebrated queen. An oil painting on oak panels, it is unusual for its large size and horizontal format. The figure of the queen dominates the picture, shown three-quarter length, in a rich gold-embroidered and jewelled dress, as the epitome of regal magnificence, her right hand resting on a globe showing the Americas, an imperial covered crown on the table behind, a fan made of ostrich feathers in her left hand, and beside her a throne. The two seascapes in the background show on the left the English fleet in calm waters with the approaching Spanish Armada, and on the right the Armada ships wrecked on the Irish coast in a storm. The theme of the painting is the defence of the realm, personified by the queen; in her most famous speech to the troops at Tilbury she declared that while she had ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman’, she had ‘the heart and stomach of a king’.
The portrait was evidently owned – or may even have been commissioned by – Sir Francis Drake, a sea captain and circumnavigator of the globe who was one of the great heroes of Elizabeth’s court, whose descendants have had it in their possession since at least 1775, passing down through generations of the family. The Royal Museums Greenwich now hope to give a permanent public home to this iconic painting and place it in the rich context of a royal and maritime setting. The museum would make an ideal custodian, with its fine 16th and 17th-century collections and world-renowned conservation expertise. It is planning a nationwide celebration of the portrait in collaboration with other museums and historic locations across the UK.
With £8.6 million left to raise this makes the Save the Armada campaign one of the Fund’s most ambitious to date - in a sequence that began in 1906 with raising £45,000 to acquire Diego Velasquez’s celebrated Rokeby Venus for the National Gallery, and more recently saw the successful raising of £10 million for Van Dyck’s Self Portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, London, and £15.75 million to save the Wedgwood Collection in 2014. The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich will run a major public appeal as well as seeking donations from a wide range of trusts, funds, foundations and individuals across the UK and beyond. A consortium of supporters has today pledged to match all public donations, pound for pound. The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I will be placed on public display during the campaign, at the National Maritime Museum, London, from 23 May.
Kevin Fewster, Director of Royal Museums Greenwich, said, “The Art Fund’s very generous grant of £1M is a fabulous kick-start to our campaign. Royal Museums Greenwich has 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. Greenwich is the perfect home for the Armada portrait. Elizabeth I was born at Greenwich Palace in 1533 and the early 17th-century Queen’s House, where we would like to display the painting, is the last remaining part of the palace. If our campaign is successful, it will be the centrepiece of a lively programme of displays, talks, tours, and education initiatives. With 2016 being the 90th birthday year of our present Queen, there could not be a more appropriate way to celebrate the second great Elizabethan era.”
Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said, “This campaign is a huge challenge but we believe in the power of popular support to make great things happen. This picture truly belongs at Greenwich, and having it here forever is tantalisingly within our grasp."