Meet the man behind the mask

Read an interview with artist Mat Collishaw. He reveals the process of making the Mask of Youth, an animatronic portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.    

I think she would be appalled. My head would be on the block and this place would get closed down for a start! 

Mat Collishaw

Mat Collishaw's Mask of Youth is a animatronic portrait of Queen Elizabeth I as she might have looked when sitting for the Armada portrait. The face is not idealised as in the portrait, instead it is presented without flattery. His methodical approach and intensive research have ensured an artwork grounded in history, but with a modern twist.

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

The Mask of Youth

The commission for the Queen’s House aimed to represent Elizabeth I aged 55, just after the Spanish Armada and while her portrait was being painted. The work aims to capture the Queen's movements as she was sitting and accurately recreates her image down to the finest details, including complexion, her famous dark brown eyes and even her teeth. The final artwork now sits in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, facing the iconic Armada portrait.
 
Image of painting, The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I
 

How do you feel seeing the mask finally installed in the Queen’s House?

 
I was pleased to see how compatible it appears in the Queen's Presence Chamber, despite being constructed from 21st century materials. It has just the right amount of incongruity to look strange and yet also at home. The mirror helps by incorporating the room into the work and allowing the mask to float in indeterminate space.

What is the most fascinating thing that you’ve learnt about Elizabeth or her era, that you’ll take away from this project?

The idea that a picture was the representation of a single event from a single perspective was totally foreign to the Elizabethan mind. An image was a device which could represent different points in time from multiple perspectives; in the Armada Portrait for example, the views out of the windows show two different moments in time. The optical accuracy of the picture was less important than the demonstrative claims of the image. 
 
Form was approached differently to conventional Renaissance painting, the Armada Portrait doesn't use laws of perspective, it flattens things out in an unnatural way - in the richly embroidered details, the position of the globe on the table, and the absence of shadows - it transcends normal optical laws, familiar in Renaissance art, and represents a higher reality more familiar in Gothic painting.
 
Mat Collishaw and the Armada portrait
Mat Collishaw and the iconic Armada portrait

You’ve worked so intimately with Elizabeth to bring her face alive, in what way did her story come alive to you?

The idea of peeling back the veneer of history in the Armada Portrait's restoration interested me. The removal of layers of varnish and overpainting to get back to some kind of truth mirrored what I was trying to do in scanning and comparing many of the portraits of Elizabeth. However the proliferation of portraits seemed to set up a smoke screen more than it revealed her true character, which remained concealed behind her inscrutable appearance. Years of insecurity, due to the potentially volatile political climate, led her to create a public mask which became fused with her private self, the two becoming inseparable. 
 
Mat Collishaw's Mask of Youth and the Armada Portrait
Mat Collishaw's Mask of Youth and the Armada Portrait in the Queen's Presence Chamber

In her lifetime Elizabeth would have seen lots of representations of herself, how do you think she would respond to your portrait?

I think she would be appalled. My head would be on the block and this place would get closed down for a start!

What do you want visitors to come away with after seeing the mask?

The sense that a portrait can hide as much as it reveals and that an image, far more than a representation of the visual world, twists and distorts, exaggerates and underplays information in a bid to create an alternate truth that can be used to forge a new reality. I hope people can relate this to contemporary life. With fake news and Instagram filters, the manipulation of the images is as old as the image itself. With the Nations sovereignty in question, it seems like a good time to reflect on these issues.