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National Portrait Gallery Presents The Phoenix and the Pelican: Two Portraits of Elizabeth I

New scientific detective work has revealed that two renowned 16th century portraits of Queen Elizabeth I belonging to two different galleries were painted on wood panels from the same tree. The portraits were first associated with Hilliard in 1933, and the new findings support the attribution as it is now known that both portraits were painted in the same studio. The paintings of Elizabeth I, known as the ‘Phoenix’ portrait and the ‘Pelican’ portrait, are on view together for the first time in more than 25 years, for one week only, at the National Portrait Gallery from 13 to19 September 2010 as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain project led by Dr Tarnya Cooper.

The two portraits of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) were painted when the queen was in her early forties, almost half way through her reign. Their names derive from the jewels worn by the queen at her breast in each picture: in one a phoenix and in the other a pelican. The face pattern used for these portraits is thought to be based on a miniature of the queen by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), also on display at the Gallery. The Phoenix portrait belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, but has been on loan to Tate Britain since 1965, and the Pelican portrait belongs to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The portraits were last shown together in an exhibition, Artists of the Tudor Court, in 1983 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the last few weeks, scientific analysis at the National Portrait Gallery has revealed that the two portraits were painted in the same studio because the wooden panels they were painted on derive from the same two oak trees and the face pattern used for each picture matches almost exactly. Dendrochronology shows both panels to be made of three boards derived from the eastern Baltic, probably Poland or the countries immediately to the east and north. The four outer boards were discovered to be from one oak tree, and the central board of each panel from another single oak tree. The panels and the portraits are mirror images of each other.

Further evidence that the portraits were painted in the same studio is that a tracing of the pattern of the Phoenix portrait matches the Pelican portrait in reverse. It was previously thought that the Pelican portrait was painted first (c.1573-4) and the Phoenix portrait was painted around two years later. However, building on technical analysis first undertaken in the 1960s the new research at the National Portrait Gallery has confirmed, using infra-red technology, that the position of the eyes has been altered in the Phoenix (they were initially lower). This has led to the new conclusion that the artist started painting this picture first before the template was used for the second portrait. Very possibly the artist had both pictures in his workshop and finished them around the same time.

It is likely that these portraits were painted by Hilliard or members of his workshop. Hilliard became the queen’s painter in 1570 and is best known for painting miniatures, as no identified oil paintings by him have survived. However, there are stylistic similarities between these portraits and miniatures by Hilliard, in particular the linear style and close attention to detail, which leads to the conclusion that the two paintings are by the artist or his studio. The portraits were first associated with Hilliard in 1933 through comparison with the miniature of Elizabeth (NPG 108), but there has been a long debate over whether he actually painted large scale oil paintings. Although no certainly identified portraits ‘in large’ by Hilliard have survived, it is known that he was commissioned by his own Company – the Goldsmiths – to paint ‘a faire picture in greate of her Ma[jes]tie.’

The Phoenix and the Pelican: Two Portraits of Elizabeth I, c.1575 runs from 13 to 19 September 2010 in Room 2 of the National Portrait Gallery. Both portraits have recently undergone in-depth technical analysis as part of the Gallery’s Making Art in Tudor Britain research project. After the display the Pelican portrait will return to the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the Phoenix portrait to Tate Britain, where it is on long-term loan from the National Portrait Gallery Collection.
Dr Tarnya Cooper, 16th Century Curator, National Portrait Gallery says: ‘It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to look at these two important pictures of Elizabeth alongside each other, and the research has been extremely exciting. We have spent about nine weeks studying these pictures in our Conservation Studio with a team of different specialists, and the analysis has indicated they must come from the same artist studio, probably that of the talented miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, or someone working close to him.’

David Crombie, Senior Paintings Conservator, National Museums Liverpool says: ‘The results of these detailed technical investigations are fascinating, as they give us a new insight into the making of these images. It is unusual to have found such decisive links between two works and the project underlines the value of this kind of collaborative work between conservators, curators and other specialists. It is very significant that new information about these paintings is available to the public, adding to enjoyment and understanding of our artistic heritage.’
Karen Hearn, Curator (16th & 17th Century British Art), Tate Britain (where the Phoenix portrait is on long-term loan from the National Portrait Gallery) says: ‘The Phoenix portrait of Elizabeth I is one of the most important Tudor paintings in our displays, so it is absolutely fascinating that this new information on it has emerged. It will be intriguing to see it hanging alongside the Pelican portrait for a week at the National Portrait Gallery, before it returns to Tate Britain. It is precisely through technical investigations of this kind that we can come to a greater understanding of these very early British portraits.’

Image: The Pelican portrait. Queen Elizabeth I attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, oil on panel, circa 1575. © Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE. Opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm) Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross Recorded information: 020 7312 2463 General information: 020 7306 0055

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