Queen Elizabeth at the NPG

Detail of Elizabethan dress

Here’s what I learned from the new exhibition Elizabeth 1 and her people.

1. The mix of wealth, trade and stability in Elizabeth I’s 45-year reign (1558-1603) led to an explosion in decorative crafts.
2. The Elizabeth era was the first time people could rise through the ranks of society through their skills.
3. The Elizabethans really loved to show off their finery. Hence, the focus on decoration in their portraiture.
4. Queen Elizabeth I rarely sat for portraits but everyone knew her face anyway. She was the first monarch to have their face printed onto currency.
5. Painters tended to paint her looking younger than she was.
6. Black cloth was considered a sign of status as it took so much dye to create the darkness.
7. According to the National Portrait Gallery’s online quiz, the Elizabethan I most resemble is French Huguenot Esther Kello, née Inglis, a calligrapher and one of England’s first businesswomen – although she unfortunately died in debt.

This is a close-up of a portrait of Elizabeth I painted by Nicholas Hilliard. It hung in Hardwick Hall and showed the Queen wearing a dress embroidered with flowers, doves, sea monsters, even a kingfisher. Water seemed to have been a big theme for the Elizabethans, referring perhaps to the boundless curiosity of naval explorers such as Francis Raleigh.

Elizabeth I and Her People runs at the National Portrait Gallery till January 5, 2014. www.npg.org.uk

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