Behind the Mask of Youth

Artist Mat Collishaw talks about his Mask of Youth and reflects on the masks Elizabeth I wore all her life.

 

It's the slippery nature of 'truth' and the manipulation of reality I'm interested in. Elizabeth didn't like posing for portraits and probably only posed for about five in her lifetime. Therefore many paintings were made from other representations of her. 

We know that she wore a lot of make-up that because of its lead content was eating into her face, so her image was idealised to present the appearance of an immortal sovereign. The Mask of Youth was a device introduced to depictions of the queen to emphasise her youthful appearance.  

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I and the Mask of Youth
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I and the Mask of Youth by Mat Collishaw in the Queen's House

Paintings that didn't comply with the ideal appearance were destroyed. Elizabeth had to be very careful about what she said and did as there were plenty of characters around that wanted to get rid of her (Catholics especially). Her life was spent living behind a mask literally and metaphorically.

I'm creating a mask that tries to reveal the truth of her actual appearance but also provides another element in the form of the mechanics, which suggest that beneath the surface, behind the mask, her mind was busy making decisions and calculations that no one else was privy to.

Mat Collishaw Mask of Youth at the Queen's House
Mat Collishaw's Mask of Youth at the Queen's House. Photo by Maurice Collishaw

Propaganda portraiture was once the reserve of the rich and powerful but it’s now in the hands of every teenager: the ability to curate your image to present a persona to the world. This ability is empowering but also quite perilous, as it’s easy to develop the addiction to presenting a positive image of yourself, far from reality, to mask vulnerability and insecurity. Elizabeth pioneered this syndrome.

The restoration of the painting was a process of stripping away layers of varnish and overpainting to reveal the 'real' painting underneath. But certain decisions were made during the restoration that render the work inaccurate to the period. We know that the naval scene behind Elizabeth was painted later, so the painting we now see is a fiction combining imagery from different periods.

Mat Collishaw's Mask of Youth at the Queen's House

The glass on which the mask is mounted is a mirror: the ultimate unreliable image. The queen is therefore marooned in this infinite sea of appearance and illusion, truth and fiction, strength and vulnerability. 

 

See the Mask of Youth, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I and other beautiful works of art in the historic Queen's House