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Newly discovered portrait of Elizabeth I at Bonhams Old Master Paintings Sale
Italian School, early 17th Century A dappled grey Neapolitan horse before an extensive landscape. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- The picture restorer given the task of cleaning an anonymous 17th century portrait had a surprise when they removed the overpainting on the face. It revealed the features of Queen Elizabeth I. Subsequent research by Bonhams specialists, who showed the work to the Yale Center for British Art, confirmed that this was indeed an unknown portrait of the Virgin Queen painted around 1562, shortly after Elizabeth came to the throne. Now the newly discovered portrait is to be offered at Bonhams Old Master Paintings Sale in London on Wednesday 4 December. It has an estimate of £150,000 - 250,000.

Andrew McKenzie, the Director of Bonhams Old Masters department, comments, “This very early, yet sophisticated, depiction of Elizabeth, is hugely significant. We are familiar with her later appearance as the strong all-powerful monarch, but Elizabeth’s early years on the throne were dogged with instability and threats from home and abroad. From her accession onwards, however, she and her court were acutely alive to the importance and possibilities of presentation – we’d call it brand management today - and this portrait is among the very first we know that projects a new, approved image of the Queen.”

The painting dates from 1562, four years after Elizabeth came to the throne on the death of her half-sister Mary I. It is one of the earliest pictures of the queen specifically designed to project a fresh and sophisticated image of her as a youthful monarch radiating a sense of authority and confidence. Portraits produced in the years immediately after her accession showed Elizabeth as stiff, lifeless, and rather dour. The artist is unknown, but circumstantial evidence points strongly to the workshop of the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen, who was active at the Tudor court during the early part of the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign.

The Queen is depicted holding a single red rose in her left hand with her right arm resting lightly on an embroidered cushion. She wears a single pearl on her forehead. The pose is strikingly similar to that of the portrait of Elizabeth in the Duke of Beaufort’s collection at Badminton Court. This closeness in style allows for the dating of the newly discovered painting and its attribution to the workshop of van der Meulen.

The early 1560s were a key period in Elizabeth’s reign, when marriage and securing the succession were high on the political agenda. Elizabeth encouraged courtship since each proposal legitimised her position; Mary’s widower Philip II of Spain, Erik XIV of Sweden and Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles of Austria all paid court at this time. Elizabeth’s emotional preference seemed to lie with her favourite, and childhood companion, Robert Dudley, with whom it is widely assumed she conducted an affair. The Queen’s political instincts, however, overruled her heart. The death (in suspicious circumstances) of Dudley’s wife in 1560 appeared to clear the way for marriage, but in fact it added to the Queen’s doubts about the acceptability of the match. Instead, she groomed Dudley as a potential husband for her cousin Mary Queen of Scots; a plan that came to nothing when Mary married Lord Darnley in 1565. Famously, Elizabeth herself never married.

Bonhams Director of Old Master Paintings, Andrew McKenzie, said, “This is an important and exciting discovery. The image of Elizabeth I as the strong all-powerful Virgin Queen is embedded deep in the national psyche but her early years on the throne were dogged with instability and threats from home and abroad. From her accession onwards, however, she and her court were acutely alive to the importance and possibilities of presentation, and this portrait is among the very first we know of to project a new, approved image of the Queen.”

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