Royal Museums Greenwich has joined forces with the Art Fund, the national charity for art, in a fundraising campaign for £8.6m to save for the nation the Armada Portrait from around 1590 of Queen Elizabeth I.
The portrait commemorates the outstanding conflict of the reign of Elizabeth (1558 – 1603), the failed invasion of England by the Spanish fleet in summer 1588.
The work is said to be one of the definitive representations of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan era. It is among the most famous images of British history, a staple illustration in school textbooks and the inspiration for countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film or on stage.
Net of tax, the price of the artwork will be around £10m. The Art Fund has committed a grant of £1m and Royal Museums Greenwich is contributing £400, 000, a figure unprecedented in such a context.
Unless the painting is bought from its private owners, it could be sold on the open market, and possibly go overseas. The masterpiece is described as being in a fragile condition, and bringing it into public ownership would secure its long-term future.
If the campaign succeeds, the painting will enter 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 would hang in the Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, which was a political and symbolic centre for the Tudor dynasty and the birthplace of Elizabeth I. The Queen’s House is at the heart of the Greenwich World Heritage Site and is reopening later in 2016 following restoration.
Painted when Elizabeth was in her late 50s, the Armada portrait is among the greatest of contemporary eulogies to the queen. An oil painting on oak panels, it is unusual in its large size and horizontal format. The figure of the queen dominates: she is shown three-quarter length, in a rich gold-embroidered and jewelled dress, as the epitome of regal magnificence, her right hand resting on a globe showing the Americas, an imperial covered crown on the table behind, a fan made of ostrich feathers in her left hand, and beside her a throne.
The two seascapes in the background show on the left the English fleet in calm waters with the approaching Spanish Armada, and on the right the Armada ships wrecked on the Irish coast in a storm. The theme of the painting is the defence of the realm, personified by the queen; in her most famous speech to the troops at Tilbury she declared that while she had “the body of a weak and feeble woman, ” she had “the heart and stomach of a king.”
It seems that the portrait was owned – or may even have been commissioned by – Sir Francis Drake who was one of the heroes of Elizabeth’s court. His descendants have had it in their possession since at least 1775.
Royal Museums Greenwich hopes to give a permanent home to this iconic painting and place it in a royal and maritime setting. The museum is seen as an ideal custodian, with its fine 16th and 17th-century collections and conservation expertise. It is planning a nationwide celebration of the portrait in collaboration with other museums and historic locations in the UK.
With £8.6m left to raise, this makes the Save the Armada Portrait campaign one of The Art Fund’s most ambitious to date. It is the latest in a sequence that began in 1906 with raising £45, 000 to acquire the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velasquez for the National Gallery, and more recently £10m for Van Dyck’s Self Portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, and £15.75m to save the Wedgwood Collection.
The Art Fund and Royal Museums Greenwich are running a public appeal and seeking donations from trusts, funds, foundations and individuals in the UK and beyond. A consortium of supporters has pledged to match all public donations pound for pound. The portrait has been on display at the National Maritime Museum since May 23.
Kevin Fewster, director of Royal Museums Greenwich, said: “The Art Fund’s very generous grant of £1m is a fabulous kick-start to our campaign. Royal Museums Greenwich has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire this remarkable portrait of Elizabeth I, so that it can be permanently shown in a public collection for the first time in its history, and safeguard its future.
“Greenwich is the perfect home for the Armada portrait. Elizabeth I was born at Greenwich Palace in 1533 and the early 17th-century Queen’s House, where we would like to display the painting, is the last remaining part of the palace. If our campaign is successful, it will be the centrepiece of a lively programme of displays, talks, tours, and education initiatives. With 2016 being the 90th birthday year of our present Queen, there could not be a more appropriate way to celebrate the second great Elizabethan era.”
Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “This campaign is a huge challenge, but we believe in the power of popular support to make great things happen. This picture truly belongs at Greenwich, and having it here forever is tantalisingly within our grasp.”
Donations can be made at artfund.org/armada or text ARMADA to 70800 to donate £10.
The Art Fund is independently funded, with the core of its income provided by 122, 000 members who receive the National Art Pass and enjoy free entry to more than 230 museums, galleries and historic places and half price entry to major exhibitions. Seewww.artfund.org, www.savearmada.org and Twitter #savearmada.