WSG members visit the National Portrait Gallery

Many thanks to WSG member Carolyn D. Williams for writing the following report on this fascinating visit. Karen Hearn will be giving a tour of her upcoming exhibition, Pregnancy Portraits, 1130am, Saturday, 15th February 2020 and if you would like to attend the tour, please send an expression of interest to Miriam Al Jamil.

On Thursday, 3 October 2019, Karen Hearn and Helen Hackett gave the National Portrait Gallery’s lunchtime lecture, on the appearance of Queen Elizabeth I at 60. WSG members were reminded of this by email and the website, and those of us who attended were treated to a presentation that was just as thought-provoking and informative as you would expect from this pairing. They alternated every few minutes, with each speaker focussing mainly on her areas of particular expertise: Helen told us a lot about written records, while Karen concentrated on the more practical details of the materials and methods used to create early modern portraits (which sometimes overlapped dangerously with the materials and methods used to apply early modern make-up). Nevertheless, it quickly became obvious from the slickness of the dovetailing that each presenter was well versed in the relevant aspects of the other’s disciplinary field.
They paid due attention to events in and around 1593, including contemporary perceptions of Elizabeth I as a waning moon, and fears about what might happen when this virgin queen died without having given birth to, or even named, a successor. They also examined more recent attitudes to her, including nineteenth-century comparisons with Queen Victoria, where the former is considered an evil tyrant and the latter a model monarch (because of her role as wife and mother). I was reminded of Louise Duckling’s conclusion to Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837, which draws similar comparisons, and also uses visual material to support the argument.

The most challenging element of the presentation consisted of Elizabeth I’s appearance in pictures, films, and television programmes, where she often becomes a Gothic monstrosity, with a dead white complexion, a bald pate covered by a series of unconvincing red wigs, and appalling teeth that would have fallen out years before if they had been real. These portrayals sometimes seem to have been executed without paying any attention to the date of the incident depicted: whether she was in her 40s, 50s or 60s, illustrators, performers and make-up artists have endowed Elizabeth I with perpetual, and exceptionally grotesque, old age. Perhaps this could all be accounted for by carelessness or ignorance. Anybody who attended this lecture could have learned, for example, that wearing wigs was not a sign of baldness, but a fashion that had become popular among the upper classes since the middle of the sixteenth century, when women’s hair was no longer concealed. They could also have learned that the dead white complexion to be found in so many sixteenth-century portraits was not intended by the artists, who would have added touches of vermilion: unfortunately, the vermilion has usually faded over time. As for those terrible teeth, well, yes, they were pretty bad by the end of her life, and she had lost so many on the left side of her face that her speech was indistinct, but at least she kept her slim, girlish figure to the last, due to a regimen of diet and exercise. But maybe these depictions of Elizabeth are not just mistakes. We are left wondering whether they indicate enduring hostility to older women with power.

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