The Art Surgery

With Barry Whitehouse of the Artery in Banbury

Queen Elizabeth I and Her Influence Over British Art

 In the days before social media, photography, or television, the only way we would know what our monarch looked like was from our currency, or official portraits. Many monarchs embraced this by getting the best portrait painter they had heard of, often bringing them in from other countries to paint them in the most modern of techniques thus showing their wealth, importance, and grandeur. Henry VIII hired Hans Holbein as his court painter and because he was known throughout Europe for his talent, so Henry had to have him paint his portrait.

Elizabeth I also made her mark in the art world but not necessarily in the same way. In Italy at the time of her reign, artists were using a technique known as ‘Chiaroscuro’. This was used by many artists, but Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Rembrandt (1606-1669) were considered the masters of its use.

Chiaroscuro was wonderful for portraits and figure paintings as it helped create the feel of solidity, and if done properly, the person or object could look as if they were lifting from the canvas. Europe was racing ahead in the art world creating new techniques and methods, leaving Britain far behind.

Elizabeth I deliberately halted the growth of art in Britain by using her power and personal choice to influence British artists to adhere to a certain style.  She much preferred the flatter light and little contrast of Holbein rather than the strong shadows of the Italian artists painting their new chiaroscuro style. Obviously artists want to try new methods and compete with the artists in Europe, but in Elizabethan England if you wanted to paint a portrait of the sovereign you would have to adhere to certain rules! This contrast can be clearly seen when comparing a portrait by Italian artist Titian painted in 1520 to a portrait of Elizabeth I painted by Nicholas Hilliard in 1575. Although the Hilliard painting is 55 years later than the Titian painting, it looks more naïve and less skilled. It is not the case if an unskilled artist as we shall see later, but an artist carrying out the will of their patron. Elizabeth also gave orders to Sir Walter Raleigh that any street signs bearing her likeness painted by ‘unskilled and common painters’ be ‘knocked into pieces and cast into the fire’. She wanted total control over the image that she wanted to portray and would go to any lengths to keep it that way.

Perhaps she may have known that she wasn’t as ravishingly beautiful as her courtiers made out and wanted the rulers of the rest of the word to see her how she saw herself.

Would a commission to paint this queen be an enviable task?! Who would take on this role as portrait painter to Queen Elizabeth I?

Miniatures were all the rage during the Elizabethan period and the greatest of all miniature artists was Nicholas Hilliard (1547 –1619), and English goldsmith and portrait painter. His work is still used today in historical text books because his skilful painting gives the most accurate representation of what the costumes were like for those living at that time. His work has been used a reference for centuries.  The way Hilliard depicts the rice fabrics and delicate laces, the jewellery and clothing style is non-surpassed. What makes this more staggering is that Hilliard preferred to work mainly on paintings 2”x2.5” in size! To get that amount of detail in such a small painting requires unbelievable skill and dedication.

So Nicholas Hilliard became Queen Elizabeth I portrait painter, but he painted other portraits at the same time. When you compare the miniature painting of An Unknown Man, to the miniature of Queen Elizabeth 1 both painted in watercolours in 1572, the differences in the way the faces are painted are obvious. The Unknown Man has stronger shadows on the skin so that shape of his nose can be seen, whereas the painting of Queen Elizabeth is much softer and her features are muted. What were the instructions given to Hilliard before he painted her?


During a meeting, Elizabeth I told Nicholas Hilliard to avoid dark shadows on the faces of his sitters. He replied after in an interview “this, Her Majesty’s curious demand, hath greatly bettered my judgement”. Perhaps she realised that her face looked better in soft light?

So because of vanity, the advancement of art in the British Isles was stunted briefly. The history of art in this country is so interesting with many twists and turns but has shaped art as we know it today.