Conservators at the National Portrait Gallery have uncovered a small painted passage 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 preparation for the Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People (10 October 2013 – 5 January 2014), when centuries of old over paint were removed.
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.
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.
Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Elizabeth I & Her People 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.
Andrew Hadfield of University of Sussex, added:
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, 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.
ELIZABETH I & HER PEOPLE
Supported by The Weiss Gallery
10 October 2013 – 5 January 2014, National Portrait Gallery, London www.npg.org.uk
Adult £13.50, Concs. £12.50/£11.50