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Hidden sea discovered in portrait reveals Walter Ralegh's secret desire for Elizabeth I
Detail of moon and newly discovered sea from top left of portrait.

LONDON.- Conservators at the National Portrait Gallery have uncovered a small painted passage of wavy blue water in a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh which reveals the depth of the explorer’s devotion to Queen Elizabeth I.

The discovery was made during the making of the Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People (10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), supported by The Weiss Gallery, which opens tomorrow.

Found at the top left-hand corner of the painting, the sea can be made out just below an emblem of a crescent moon, indicating Ralegh’s willingness to be controlled by the Queen in the same way the moon controls the tides. Elizabeth had been compared to the moon goddess Cynthia, and experts now say the newly-revealed water must refer to the explorer himself (using the pun Walter/water).

The discovery also indicates Ralegh’s later letters to Elizabeth with similar coded references to moon and water, once thought to have been written while he was imprisoned for his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting in 1591, now date from the same period of the painting.

The portrait, which belongs to the National Portrait Gallery and features in the exhibition has, through the generosity of the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards, been painstakingly conserved and centuries of old over paint have been removed.

Widely understood as a visual statement of Ralegh’s devotion to the Queen, he wears the Queen’s colours of black and white and his costume is covered with pearls, which were associated with Elizabeth as symbols of virginity. The pearls on his sable-trimmed cloak form the rays of a ‘sun in splendour’, a heraldic device also found in portraits of the Queen, possibly reinterpreted here as a ‘moon in splendour’.

Ralegh’s ‘Cynthia’ cycle of poems written in his italic handwriting for the Queen can also be seen in the Elizabeth I and Her People exhibition. The cycle was referred to in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen of 1590, and Spenser probably saw the poem in manuscript form in 1589 while both were in Ireland (one year after this portrait was painted).

In the poem Ralegh represents Elizabeth I as Cynthia, the moon goddess (a powerful, benevolent virgin, who was also known to be capricious when affronted). His use of such symbolism flatters the Queen, while recognising his own difficult position and Elizabeth’s complicated relationship with her male courtiers.

The page of the poem on display in the exhibition explores the image of Ralegh as a pastoral figure serving the Queen at sea: he is the shepherd of the ocean, pining for his distant mistress, and despairing of ever finding his way back home. In a prefatory sonnet to the 1590 Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser described a work by Ralegh that addressed the Queen as ‘Cynthia’, which, along with the use of this motif in this portrait would suggest that Ralegh had started his poems before his spectacular fall from grace and perhaps revised them later.

Famously handsome, Walter Ralegh rose quickly in Elizabeth I’s favour. Made an Esquire of the Body in 1581, he secured a patent to colonise North America in 1584 and was knighted in 1585. The portrait referred to here was painted in the year of the attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588, when Ralegh’s reputation and influence soared. The previous year he had been involved in surveying England’s coastal defences, and was nominated to succeed Christopher Hatton as Captain of the Guard.

Technical analysis of the portrait has also shown that the artist originally intended to show Ralegh with his right hand on his hip, instead of on the table. This evidence indicates that the picture was certainly devised as an original composition rather than from an existing portrait. The portrait is one of only a few contemporary portraits of Ralegh in his prime. It seems possible that this painting belonged to Ralegh’s elder brother, Sir Carew Ralegh, as it was recorded in the seventeenth century as being built into the panelling of his family home in Salisbury, where it remained until the nineteenth century.

Dr Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Elizabeth I & Her People and Chief Curator, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: We know it was the patron rather than the painter who would have helped to devise the content of portrait compositions at this time. Therefore this discovery provides exciting new evidence about Ralegh’s creative ingenuity. It shows how portraiture, like poetry was used as a tool to present personal messages of devotion to the queen’.

Literary scholar and exhibition advisor Professor Andrew Hadfield, University of Sussex, says: ‘This is a fascinating discovery which suggests that Raleigh was at work on his strange Cynthia poems in the late 1580s and that he may have regarded his position at court as perilous and unstable well before his secret marriage. We know that he had a literary friendship with Edmund Spenser, an equally complicated and conflicted figure, and they may have been developing their poems about the queen together in the 1580s’.

With of over 100 objects, including accessories, artefacts, costumes, coins, jewellery and crafts, Elizabeth I and Her People will include not just portraits of courtiers, but also intriguing lesser-known images of merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights and artists – all of whom contributed to the making of a nation and a new world power.

The exhibition shows how members of a growing wealthy middle class sought to have their likenesses captured for posterity as the mid-sixteenth-century interest in portraiture broadened. Portraits of courtiers such as Christopher Hatton, Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth Vernon are joined by explorers such as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher, ambassadors such as Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, financiers such as Thomas Gresham and poets including John Donne.

Elizabeth I & Her People is curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator and Curator of Sixteenth Century Portraits, whose previous exhibitions at the Gallery include Searching for Shakespeare (2006). She is the author of A Guide to Tudor & Jacobean Portraits (2008) and Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite, 1540–1620 (2012).

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