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National Portrait Gallery discovers hidden sea in portrait of Walter Ralegh

Conservators at the National Portrait Gallery have uncovered a small painted passage of wavy blue water in a portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh which reveals the depth of the explorer’s devotion to Queen Elizabeth I.
The discovery was made during the making of the Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People (10 October 2013 – 5 January 2014), supported by The Weiss Gallery, which opens tomorrow.

Sir Walter Ralegh by an unknown English artist, 1588. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
Sir Walter Ralegh by an unknown English artist, 1588. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
Found at the top left-hand corner of the painting, the sea can be made out just below an emblem of a crescent moon, indicating Ralegh’s willingness to be controlled by the Queen in the same way the moon controls the tides. Elizabeth had been compared to the moon goddess Cynthia, and experts now say the newly-revealed water must refer to the explorer himself (using the pun Walter/water).

The discovery also indicates Ralegh’s later letters to Elizabeth with similar coded references to moon and water, once thought to have been written while he was imprisoned for his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting in 1591, now date from the same period of the painting.

The portrait, which belongs to the National Portrait Gallery and features in the exhibition has, through the generosity of the Woodmansterne Art Conservation Awards, been painstakingly conserved and centuries of old over paint have been removed.

Widely understood as a visual statement of Ralegh’s devotion to the Queen, he wears the Queen’s colours of black and white and his costume is covered with pearls, which were associated with Elizabeth as symbols of virginity. The pearls on his sable-trimmed cloak form the rays of a ‘sun in splendour’, a heraldic device also found in portraits of the Queen, possibly reinterpreted here as a ‘moon in splendour’

With of over 100 objects, including accessories, artefacts, costumes, coins, jewellery and crafts, Elizabeth I and Her People will include not just portraits of courtiers, but also intriguing lesser-known images of merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights and artists – all of whom contributed to the making of a nation and a new world power.

The exhibition shows how members of a growing wealthy middle class sought to have their likenesses captured for posterity as the mid-sixteenth-century interest in portraiture broadened. Portraits of courtiers such as Christopher Hatton, Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth Vernon are joined by explorers such as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher, ambassadors such as Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, financiers such as Thomas Gresham and poets including John Donne.

Elizabeth I & Her People is curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator and Curator of Sixteenth Century Portraits, whose previous exhibitions at the Gallery include Searching for Shakespeare (2006). She is the author of A Guide to Tudor & Jacobean Portraits (2008) and Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite, 1540–1620 (2012).

Supported by The Weiss Gallery
10 October 2013 – 5 January 2014, National Portrait Gallery, London