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Printed Portraiture in Tudor and Early Stuart Britain
Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist, circa 1587. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The National Portrait Gallery presents Making History: Printed Portraiture in Tudor and Early Stuart Britain, on view through December 9, 2007. Long before the age of photography, printed portraits served a growing public appetite to gaze upon the features of men and women whose exploits and achievements had excited public interest. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, the great and the good (such as naval heroes, military commanders and the nobility) and the not so good (such as convicted traitors) were portrayed by engravers.

Exploring the visual history of the fame-making process in Tudor and Jacobean England, this display features some of the Gallery's earliest original portrait prints.

The native production of printed images became an established tradition in England only in the middle of the seventeenth century. Before this time, printed images were mainly produced by anonymous or little-known craftsmen, often by émigrés from cities in the Netherlands such as Antwerp or Haarlem where book publishing and print culture thrived.

Into the seventeenth century there was a growing market for engravings made as independent images to celebrate the protagonists of important events. These types of images were on sale to the public in stationers' shops as independent sheets and may have been purchased to pin up as reasonably inexpensive wall decorations in inns and middle-class households, or by early collectors to place in albums.

A popular portrait type showed the features of medieval kings from William the Conqueror to Richard III, based on both real and imaginary prototypes. At a time when plays by William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlow and others were bringing English history before the eyes of thousands of playgoers these prints would have had a public appeal beyond being sought merely by antiquarians and collectors.

The types of individuals who appear frequently in engraved portraits provide a telling index to the period. They include soldiers and explorers, the political élite, authors and musicians, courtiers and, not surprisingly at a time of significant religious turmoil, numerous theologians and members of the clergy.

During the Elizabethan period naval heroes and explorers such as Francis Drake and Walter Ralegh became well-known names, partly through the popularity of published accounts with maps and portrait prints. The impressive portrait of the explorer Humphrey Gilbert by the French artist Robert Boissard was produced between 1590 and 1603. It would have been reasonably expensive and was published as part of a set with Ralegh, Drake and Thomas Cavendish, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher among others.

Convicted traitors such as the gunpowder plotters of 1603 or notorious murderers also became national figures through their portrayal in engraved portraits. The double portrait of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and his wife Frances was produced around 1615 when the pair were being interrogated over the murder of the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury. Frances was vilified as a sexually promiscuous enchantress, and the pair were charged the following year and spent over five years in the Tower of London ­ all circumstances which would have increased the saleability of this print, which was still being published over thirty years later.

These types of prints together with many others now form a significant archive of early portrait engravings in the National Portrait Gallery's Collection. The archive is used by thousands of researchers each year, but the originals are rarely put on public display. Making History: Printed Portraiture in Tudor and Early Stuart Britain demonstrates the varied mix of our holdings and brings together a body of little-known images that helped to create the early public interest in celebrity.

Dr Tarnya Cooper, 16th Century Curator and curator of this rare display of early engravings says: 'These images were never conceived as high art, but they are an important part of British history. The creation of public interest in men and women who became national figures was fuelled by the multiple publication of portrait prints in the late 1500s. It is interesting that these early images were at the start of the celebrity culture that is still with us today.'

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