Painted Ladies and Melancholic Poets. A problem with old portraits

15th June 2014
Over the past few months, I have been doing a lot of staring at old portraits. It's part of the research into my new book (to be released July 2nd). Art is an invaluable tool for the historical novelist, of course. So when I encountered an article recently concerning one of the paintings housed in the National Portrait Gallery of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1503) and the discovery made there of microscopic fragments of pink upon areas of its surface, I was intrigued. Look ...
close up of pigmentation on old painting, microscopic
This must give weight to the theory that Elizabeth, rather than being pale and mysterious by design, like this:
Elizabethan Queen with ruff, red hair and pearles, half profile
... might instead have sanctioned having her complexion rendered with a touch of rosiness upon the cheeks.

Imagine! Many of those portraits we have of her with that pale, austere, mask-like face might well be inaccurate, therefore - a result more of deterioration in pigment rather than any original design on the part of the sitter or artist.
Fascinating ... or is it?
Should we be surprised that our favourite monarch from history wasn't deathly pale? Certainly in real life Elizabeth took great pains over her appearance. Like the extraordinary, almost architectural court dresses she wore, the make-up regime practiced by Elizabeth was elaborate and extensive.

Her face and neck would be painted with a foundation of ‘ceruse,’ a paste compiled from white lead and vinegar (don’t try this at home – it’s poisonous). Over this she would most likely have added a combination of red dye with mercuric sulphide (equally toxic) to bring redness to her lips and a rosy tint to her cheeks. Finally, Kohl, a black lead sulphide might well have been applied around the eyes. All these techniques will be familiar to those using make-up today. Thankfully, though, the substances used are no longer so hazardous.
banner image, including face of Elizabeth I, linking to novel information

Evolution of an Image

How much of this was to conceal the damage to her skin from smallpox which she contracted early into her reign, and how much was simply used to hide the onset of age is not clear. Other enhancements that Elizabeth would have used were the sculpturing of her eyebrows and hair-line through plucking. This would have intentionally increased the size of her forehead and the arch of her eyebrows. Wigs were worn during later years to further develop the dramatic almost supernatural impact of her appearance. Certainly her image became more and more stylised as the years passed. The evolution of the image of 'Gloriana' and the ageless Virgin Queen became more and more firmly established in the popular imagination.

What all this means is when we encounter something just a little unsettling like this:
poor condition portrait of Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I, c.1580 - artist unknown.
Oops! Here, the paint has clearly deteriorated; fallen off or simply been scrubbed away by inappropriate cleaning. It has left the lady with an unfortunate 'five-o'clock shadow' kind of appearance. We should not, therefore, conclude that this is a likeness of Elizabeth at all, and would do well, perhaps, to console ourselves by letting our eyes feast on something like this instead:
double miniature portrait of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, both in half profile
A pair of miniature portraits by Nicholas Hilliard of Queen Elizabeth and Earl of Leicester.

In miniature - the informal look

Old portraits do not have to be enormous, of course. They can be the opposite - very small. Often they were very small indeed. Painted in watercolour on vellum, this delicate pair of miniature paintings shows Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester as they were in 1575. From the hand of Nicholas Hilliard, these must surely be two of the most beautiful images to have survived from the 16th century.

Like most miniature paintings of the period, they were personal and informal and not meant for public exposure. And, unlike the great, formal oil paintings on wooden panels or canvas, they would have been kept away and protected from the ravages of light, humidity and over-zealous cleaning. Thus, we can safely presume it to be as good a likeness of Elizabeth as we are ever likely to encounter. There are no rosy cheeks here, though. So I think the jury still has to be out as to whether those more formal portraits were pale or rosy, or (the more likely option) just somewhere in-between.

Misleading old portraits

What this does teach us, however, is that official portraits, especially old portraits can give a false impression. And the older they are the more likely they are to do so. We do a disservice to the person concerned if we judge their character simply by what we see today at a remove of some centuries, especially if the painting itself is damaged. Again, look at this ...
portrait of Tudor woman in red gown, paint badly deteriorated
The Streatham Portrait of (possibly) Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554) artist unknown.
Oh dear! I have always had my doubts about this portrait. That we should even begin to take it as a plausible likeness of anyone at all after so much damage and faded paint is little short of preposterous. At the very least it is misleading.

A lot of controversy surrounds this work, with people calling it a bad painting, even an appalling one. This isn't fair. It is a badly deteriorated one, that's all. Old portraits are delicate things. The skin tone here has gone patchy and dark, while whole swathes of paint have degraded or simply fallen away. But of one thing we can be certain. It would not have looked like this upon its inception. Remember, only the privileged few could afford to commission a portrait. It was time consuming and prohibitively expensive for most. Painters of old were simply not that careless, anyway. And those who paid vast sums to have their likenesses rendered were also not indifferent to poor workmanship. It is probably a copy of an original, anyway.

John Donne

Finally, I think we should just remind ourselves of this - the NPG portrait of John Donne, one of our finest poets.
portrait of young 16th century man, the poet Donne, with large hat
John Donne c.1590 - artist unknown.
This is certainly a better preserved painting than the previous one. But what we see is still only the ghost of what the man might really have looked like. Clearly here, too, a lot of the surface has deteriorated or been overpainted, leaving a blotchy, bruised kind of look to the face. The hat and parts of the clothing have faded also. Pale and interesting as a young man? - he might well have been. But for all we know from this portrait he might equally have been rosy and jolly as well. That's the point. Damaged art can feed our preconceived ideas or prejudices - that a poet must be pale and melancholic, for instance, or a Queen a grotesque painted lady.


So, the moral of this blogpost? Just as we should never judge a book by its cover, please also let's not judge any historical figure by his or her portrait, either. Sometimes it is the least reliable source of all.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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