A major public appeal by the Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich – attracting 8000 donations totalling £1.5m – to help the museum acquire the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, has succeeded thanks to a major grant of £7.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

“We are overwhelmed and extremely grateful for the response and great support we have received, and wish to thank everybody who has donated.” 

Kevin Fewster, Director of Royal Museums Greenwich 

The painting, sold by the descendants of Sir Francis Drake, enters public ownership for the first time in its 425-year-history, and in the 90th birthday year of our present Queen. As part of the national collection it will hang in the reopened Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, which was the birthplace of Elizabeth I herself.

The portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth’s reign (1558–1603), the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. One of the definitive representations of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan era, it has been the inspiration for countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film or on stage, and a staple in school textbooks.

Overwhelming public response

The campaign to save the painting began in May with a £1m grant from Art Fund and £400k contribution from Royal Museums Greenwich. An overwhelming response from the public has seen 8000 donations in just 10 weeks, with every donation matched pound for pound, raising £1.5m in total. Major contributions were made by the Linbury Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the Headley Trust. In total, £10.3m has now been raised.

“On behalf of the Tyrwhitt-Drake’s, I am delighted that this exceptional work has been safeguarded for future generations to be admired by all in the National Maritime Museum, a public institution where it can be viewed for generations to come.

William Tyrwhitt-Drake

The extraordinary level of support from the public makes this one of the most successful ever campaigns for a work of art. The groundswell of public support for this masterpiece of the English Renaissance, one of the most famous images in British history, was recognised by HLF in its decision to offer substantial support.

Up and down the country people helped the appeal. Christina Ryder, 7, who attends Wakefield Girls’ High School Junior School, started a fundraising campaign for the portrait by selling cupcakes iced with Elizabeth I faces, whilst wearing a magnificent costume inspired by the painting. St Paul’s Girls’ School in London held a bake sale in aid of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I. History teacher Blanche Girouard said, “We study the portrait when we teach Elizabeth I and the Armada, so the girls were very keen to help save it for the nation”.

The HLF grant means the millions of people who play The National Lottery have now brought this treasured work into the national collection.

Sharing and celebrating

Royal Museums Greenwich will celebrate the national importance of the painting through a network of local and national partnerships with educational institutions and heritage organisations. This will ensure that the stories of the painting in its broadest cultural and historic context are shared and celebrated across the UK.

The portrait was the centrepiece of the opening of the Queen’s House in October 2016. The painting will now undergo a period of necessary conservation to restore its fragile painted surfaces in 2017, during which time it will be off display, and will then be part of an exhibition programme and outreach activities.

About the painting 

Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death in 1603. The Armada Portrait was painted when she was in her fifties and it commemorates the most famous conflict of her reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in summer 1588. Elizabeth gave a rousing speech to her troops at Tilbury in August 1588, as the Armada fled for home:

"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm…"

The portrait may have been owned or even commissioned by Sir Francis Drake, who was second in command of the English fleet against the Spanish. It has been privately owned by his descendants since at least 1775.

This painting is particularly unusual in representing Elizabeth in a naval and maritime context. It is an outstanding historical document, which summarizes the hopes and aspirations of the state as an imperial power, at a watershed moment in history. But the Armada Portrait transcends this specific moment in time. Scholars have described it as a definitive representation of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan ‘Golden Age’.

The Armada Portrait was designed to be a spectacle of female power and majesty, carefully calculated to inspire awe and wonder. Like many Tudor portraits, it is packed with meaning and metaphor. Elizabeth’s upright posture, open arms and clear gaze speak of vitality and strength. She is draped in pearls – symbols of chastity and the Moon.

Numerous suns are embroidered in gold on her skirt and sleeves, to signify power and enlightenment. She rests her hand on a globe, with her fingers over the New World, and above can be seen a covered imperial crown: both signal her potency as a ruler, not just of England but also as a monarch with overseas ambitions. In the background, two maritime scenes show the English fleet engaging the Armada in the Channel and Spanish ships being wrecked on the Irish Coast during their stormy passage home, while the mermaid on the queen’s chair of state symbolizes sailors lured to their destruction. Intriguingly, both views are very early 18th-century repaintings over late-16th-century originals.

This spectacular image has inspired countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film, theatre and television, and has been instrumental in making her one of the most recognizable historical figures today. It is a truly iconic work of art.

Acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund, Linbury Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation, Headley Trust and other major donors, together with contributions from over 8000 members of the public following a joint appeal with Art Fund.

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