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Armada portraits of Elizabeth I united behind old naval college | Art and design

Art lovers will finally be able to fully appreciate the important differences between the three Armada portraits of Elizabeth I, when they are hanging alongside each other in Greenwich for the first time in their history, according to a senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

“All these paintings have scattered across the country, but they only make sense when they are in dialogue with each other,” said Charlotte Bolland.

As an image of a commanding monarch at the very peak of her power, there is little more arresting than the so-called Armada portrait of Elizabeth I painted in the immediate aftermath of her victory over the Spanish naval fleet and showing the Queen in absolute dominion over the seas and her colonies.

The somewhat fantastical scenario of the three surviving version of the Armada portrait hanging together will this week come to pass, when they go on public display side by side for the first time in their 430-year history.

In what has been described as a “dream scenario” for artistic research of the period, Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) is displaying its version of the portrait, which it acquired in 2016 from descendants of Sir Francis Drake, alongside the one owned by the NPG and a version privately owned by the Duke of Bedford that is usually on display at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire.

All three paintings date from the immediate aftermath of the victory over the Armada in 1588 and at first glance are strikingly similar, although the NPG version has at some point been cropped, losing from each side the scenes of English naval triumph and Spanish disaster.

While the composition and the pose of the monarch are almost identical in each, subtle differences are immensely revealing, Bolland said. In the Greenwich version, for example, Elizabeth appears to stare directly at the viewer, while in the Woburn one she is gazing into the middle distance.

The naval scenes in the Greenwich portrait were overpainted at some point in the 18th century. The painting has kept its colour more successfully than the Woburn version, whose bright blue paint has faded, especially in its more original naval scenes, to a dull yellow.

The three portraits were once assumed to have originated from the same painter or studio, but recent research has established that they were painted by a different hand, said Bolland. The absence of “pentimenti” – signs that the painter changed his mind as he worked – suggests that none of the three is an original on which the others were based. Instead they may have been based around a fully worked cartoon, or another, lost version.

“Looking at these pics requires us to think a little differently about works of art than we do in the twenty-first century,” said Allison Goudie, the curator of pre-1800 art at RMG. “In this post-Enlightenment age, we tend to think about who painted the picture.

“But here the star of the show is Elizabeth herself. The sheer breadth of her costume has echoes of [her father] Henry VIII’s broad shoulders, but if you look closely and try to find an anatomical human body underneath there it’s quite hard to find. You might say this is something women grapple with even today – how female power is portrayed and to what extent women need to alter their female [biology] to fit a particular mould.

“I think that was a very topical question in Elizabeth’s age, and you might say it remains so today.”

Faces of a Queen is at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London, from 13 February to 31 August

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