Susan Derges

Queen's House Closure 3

Visitor Notice: On Saturday 22 and Tuesday 25 June certain areas of the Queen's House will be closed to the public for a private event. The rest of the house, including the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, will be open as usual.

Susan Derges unpacks the symbolism within the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I in her new works. 

It was part of the Elizabethan mindset - to use star constellations for physical and celestial navigation.

Innovations in astronomical devices and the possibility of mapping the stars in the 16th century had a huge impact on navigation and exploration overseas. Celestial globes depicted the constellations through mythological representations. Elizabeth studied astrology, with the natural philosopher John Dee. I decided to explore Elizabeth’s birth chart, as another kind of map of the inner qualities and external challenges of a life. In retrospect it’s interesting to see how she navigated this journey.  

The moon features in my in my work often to represent themes of metamorphosis and internal, psychological states. 

Shakespeare used the words, Mortal Moon to describe Elizabeth at the end of her reign. 

The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endured,And the sad Augurs mock their own presage...

 Mortal Moon seemed like a beautifully concise title to use and a lens through which to look at a woman, who fashioned herself in such striking ways. She invoked an otherworldly or a goddess like archetype. In paintings Elizabeth is depicted with the crescent moon of the goddess Cynthia or Diana in her hair.

The Armada Portrait is not typical of the feminine that has so often been represented in art.

She is not passive, serene or maternal, but a powerful, commanding figure. I think Elizabeth was a complex mix of huge intellectual curiosity, will power and stoicism. She had strong spiritual convictions but she lacked empathy. She would have been very alone and self-contained in both the early and later years of her life.

The painting is beautifully emblematic.

I wanted to include some of the painting’s symbolic references within my own imagery - as decorative frames. The Tudor rose and rose hip, indicate the roses’ female cycle; the mermaid a beautiful yet destructive presence. Pearls suggest virginity but also indicate trade and piracy, on which new fortunes of person and state, were established.

Find out more about symbolism in portraits of Queen Elizabeth I

During the years that I was making night photograms outdoors in river and shoreline locations, I became very tuned into the cycles of the moon. 

Ambient moonlight coloured my photo paper into hues of blue. The moon governed the tides I was working with and I became extremely conscious of its cycles. The prints I made in response to the Armada Portrait are digital c-types. They are made in my studio with a Hasselblad camera but informed by my earlier approach to making photograms or camera-less images of water.

The ships and wrecked galleons of the Armada resonate with the present day in terms of the abandoned and wrecked boats in our collective awareness.

We still face the consequences of the empire and its impact on the world.

Visit the Queen's House

Find out more about Mortal Moon

#armadaportrait

Banner image credit: Moon in Taurus, by Susan Derges, 2019, c-type photographic print