Lace in the Armada Portrait

written by Sophie | Art History, Lace



One of the most iconic images of the Tudor age is the Armada Portrait. It portrays Queen Elizabeth I and commemorates the failed Spanish invasion of 1588. Three versions of this portrait are known: one is in the Woburn Abbey collection, one is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and one is at the National Portrait Gallery in London (the NPG version was cut down on the sides at an unknown date). The three paintings are similar but probably created by three different artists or workshops all working from the same pattern.

Details of all three Armada Portraits; The Woburn Abbey version on the left, the National Maritime Collection in the centre, and the National Portrait Gallery version on the right. Image: © Royal Museum Greenwich.

The National Portrait Gallery portrait has been attributed to George Gower (c. 1540 – 1596), serjeant Painter to the Queen from 1581. The Woburn portrait was initially also attributed to Gower, but this attribution has since been brought into question. The Greenwich portrait is by a different hand altogether, based on an analysis of the painting techniques, style and palette used. The design (pattern) of the Armada Portrait has been used for numerous portraits of Elizabeth, but there seems little doubt the original was created by Nicholas Hilliard.

The Armada Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist - NPG 541, oil on panel, circa 1588, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Detail of the NPG Armada Portrait, showing the blocked-in pearls underneath the lace ruff.

The lace patterns of the ruff are identical in all three portraits, showing a solid linen inner section, followed by a small circular pattern of (probably) drawn thread work, and working outwards, followed by an elaborate cutwork design of zigzags and semi-circles. The large outer cutwork rosettes are finished with triangular needle lace edgings (for more info on early lace see this article).

The painting techniques applied differs in the three portraits. Focussing on the Armada Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, the ruff was painted as a flat circular shape. However, a slight perspective was applied elsewhere in the painting, such as in the depiction of the small silk bows on the dress, or the shading in the sleeves, suggesting volume and form. The flatness of the circular ruff is stark and demands the viewer’s attention. Like wedges, each triangular fold in the ruff was outlined with straight thin lines of white paint (this outline is missing in the two other Armada Portraits). The outline excludes the circular rosette patterns and the plain linen inner section. Each wedge shows the same cutwork pattern, with numerous tiny paint dabs suggesting the decorative picots on the stitched bridging threads. The wedges are slightly larger at the centre front and become smaller towards the upper part of the head. The rosettes are methodically drawn in equal size, with alternating interior designs.

The Armada Portrait, Queen Elizabeth I (detail), by Unknown English artist - NPG 541, oil on panel, circa 1588, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: S. Ploeg

The dress and jewellery can be seen through the transparent lace. The artist initially laid in the shape of the ruff, dress, and pearls, then painted the green curtains in the background and the black dress. He subsequently painted the lace pattern on top with a fine brush loaded with lead white paint mixed with a little vermillion, red lake, charcoal black and smalt (blue). The green curtains have been heavily overpainted at a later date, with only small areas of original paint still visible beneath the ruff. It is therefore likely parts of the lace patterns were also repainted. The two-dimensional manner of painting the ruff, as a single layer of lace without visible folds, enhances the effect of the circle around Elizabeth’s face, echoed in the many references to celestial spheres in the painting’s iconography.

Painters like the Armada artist(s), Hilliard and later also William Larkin, aimed to represent the complex and extensive use of embroidery, lace, and jewellery in their portraiture through a meticulously detailed paint application, impasto, and a careful reproduction of lace patterns. This approach provides a useful tool for lace historians to recognise patterns and techniques. But the techniques to paint lace also followed lace making techniques. Early needle lace is an open type of lace. It made sense to use a small brush to paint it directly on top of dried underlayers of darker paint. This darker underpainting represented the clothing underneath the lace (even if it was left unrendered). This painting method would be reversed in the works of later artists such as Van Dyck.

Further Reading:

Charlotte Bolland and Tarnya Cooper, The Real Tudors. Kings and Queens Rediscovered (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2015).
Christine Riding and Robert Blyth, The Armada Portrait (London: National Maritime Museum, 2020)
Janet Arnold, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d (Leeds: Maney, 2014).
Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth. Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry (London: Pimlico, 1999).
Karen Hearn, Dynasties. Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630 (London: Tate Publishing, 1995).

Published August 20, 2023

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