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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Seven queens star in Sotheby’s show of power, prestige and pearls | Art

Seven queens of these islands have been gathered this month in an extraordinary grouping to mark the unrivalled length of Elizabeth II’s reign.

Sotheby’s auction house has assembled portraits of all the regnant queens from the Tudors onwards, with the exception of Lady Jane Grey, the teenager who claimed the throne for just nine days.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II with her eyes closed wearing a crown and fur-collared coat
Lightness of Being by Chris Levine (2004). Photograph: Chris Levine

Some of these “portraits of power” are better remembered than others in the five centuries covered, but leading the pack, eclipsed perhaps only by a selection of modern portraits of the current queen, is Elizabeth I. The famous Armada Portrait, attributed to George Gower, serjeant painter to the queen from 1581, has been loaned by Woburn Abbey, owner of the best preserved of the three versions of this work. One of the most recognisable images from British history, it shows Good Queen Bess in the gown it is thought she wore to address her troops at Tilbury. Her hand, resting on a globe, establishes her power and prestige.

For the curator of Sotheby’s show Power & Image: Royal Portraiture & Iconography, Old Masters specialist Julian Gascoigne, the painting quickly became the cornerstone of the entire exhibition. “Not only has it become the defining image of Elizabeth I, the famous ‘Virgin Queen’, it is one of the defining images of female power of any age,” he said this weekend. “As it’s been endlessly reproduced in numerous media, it can be difficult to take in the fact that you are face to face with the real thing.”

Gascoigne had to meet the challenge of finding rare portraits of all the queens regnant held in private ownership. “As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t been done in such a focused way before, certainly not outside of major museum collections.”

Portrait of Queen Mary I looking stern and holding her hands
Queen Mary I by Hans Eworth (1554). Photograph: Todd-White Art Photography

A portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, from the French School registers her reign as queen of Scotland from 1542 to 1587. The unknown painter created this image of the mother of the future King James from a drawing now held in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France, possibly commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici, Mary’s mother-in-law, alongside a set of crayon sketches of her children.

Hans Eworth’s portrait of Queen Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, has been ferried across Mayfair from the Society of Antiquaries, based in Burlington House, Piccadilly. Finished in 1554, around the time of Mary’s 38th birthday, it is the first serious study painted after her coronation in 1553 and it portrays the queen in an extravagant dress of red and gold edged with fur and studded with diamonds. The grandeur may have been an attempt to add weight to the image of a woman expected to bear an heir to the kingdoms of England and Spain.

Mary II assumed the throne when parliament invited her to join her husband Prince William of Orange as joint sovereigns following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Depicted at the birth of the constitutional monarchy of today, Jan van der Vaart’s portrait shows her wearing a velvet and ermine cloak over a loose blue gown fastened with diamond brooches.

Queen Victoria sitting on a throne with her feet on a cushion
Queen Victoria by George Hayter (1838). Photograph: Private collection

Sir Godfrey Kneller’s painting of Queen Anne shows her presenting the plans of Blenheim Palace to a figure representing “military merit”, possibly styled after the Duke of Marlborough himself, the lucky recipient of the palace. Anne became the first monarch of a united Great Britain following the Act of Union of 1707.

George Hayter’s portrait of a young Victoria has been loaned to Sotheby’s from a private collection. This portrait, commissioned for Madame Tussauds in 1838, displays all the regal red-velvet trappings, with the coronation robe and state crown, but represents the moment when the monarchy became a popular confection rather than a true power in the land. Victoria’s youth and humanity are foregrounded in a picture, which the current Queen has copy of in her own collection.

The show runs until 15 June in Sotheby’s Bond Street sale room, which is holding a series of accompanying lectures and performances.

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