This oil portrait is copied from a painting currently owned by the Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo, North Carolina. It is a variant of the famous Ditchley portrait and was probably painted in the 1590s by the studio of Marcus Gheeraerts the younger.
There is no evidence that Spenser owned such a portrait. If he did own one like it, he may have displayed it in a semi-public place, as a demonstration of his property, taste and political connections. In the early modern period, public display of paintings was unusual, and so the painting hangs here, in the Ground Floor Parlor, rather than in the more public Great Hall.
Picture galleries existed in early modern Ireland, for example at Ormond Castle, Carrick-on-Suir, whose attached Elizabethan mansion was built in the 1560s by Thomas Butler, tenth earl of Ormond and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. Ormond’s castle at Kilkenny also held paintings in the early modern period. Paintings were typically hung alongside tapestries (such as those in the house of Busyrane and viewed by the heroine Britomart in The Faerie Queene III.xi). For this reason a tapestry also hangs in this room (Ground Floor Parlor: Tapestry). It is questionable whether or not a mid-level functionary and new landowner such as Spenser could afford such luxury items, but it is possible.
A painting of Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen,” would call attention to Spenser’s complex relationship with his monarch. She was his patron and employer. In 1590, after Spenser visited the court and presented his poetry there, the queen granted him a sizeable pension of 50 pounds per annum. In Ireland, Spenser served as administrator of his estate on behalf of the English crown, and therefore any authority he had ultimately emanated from the queen in London. Enter the parlor and you not only met Spenser’s family, but a likeness of her majesty as well.
Spenser paints a complicated picture of Queen Elizabeth in his poetry. The queen was a powerful patron and subject of his work. She is allegorized as “Gloriana” or the inspirational Fairy Queen of The Faerie Queene (Great Hall: Mantelpiece on this website), and she is praised elsewhere in fulsome terms in his poetry (in “Colin Clouts Come Home Againe”, for example). In Book I of The Faerie Queene, the main hero of the epic, Prince Arthur, sees Gloriana in a dream vision and is inspired towards virtuous action on her behalf:
Whiles euery sence the humour sweet embayd,
And slombring soft my hart did steale away
Me seemed, by my side a royall Mayd
Her daintie limbes full softly down did lay:
So fayre a creature yet saw neuer sunny day.
Mostly goodly glee and louely blandishment
She to me made, and badd me loue her deare;
For dearely sure her loue was to me bent,
As when iust time expired should appeare.
But whether dreames delude, or true it were,
Was neuer hart so rauisht with delight,
Ne liuing man like wordes did euer heare,
As she to me deliuered all that night;
And at her parting said, She Queene of Faries hight.
From that day forth I lou’d that face diuyne;
From that day forth I cast in carefull mynd,
To seeke her out with labor, and long tyne,… (FQ I.ix.13-15)
Simultaneously, Spenser’s satiric nature led him to criticize the queen and her court. Elizabeth appears to be satirized for her pride and worldly decadence in the figure of “Lucifera,” who rules over the House of Pride earlier in Book I:
High aboue all a cloth of State was spred,
And a rich throne, as bright as sunny day,
On which there sate most braue embellished
With royall robes and gorgeous array,
A mayden Queene, that shone as Titans ray,
In glistring gold, and perelesse pretious stone;
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As enuying her selfe, that too exceeding shone. (FQ I.iv.8)
This portrait hanging in the ground-floor Parlor captures some of that same ambiguity: it shows the richly adorned Queen Elizabeth in all her splendid majesty but, uncharacteristically for such a portrait in this period, it does not hide her age. The mortal corruption of her flesh and her vanity is evident: wrinkles, veins, jewels and lace all command our attention. Like Oliver Cromwell in a later age, she has been painted “warts and all,” but with a difference.
Douglas Brooks-Davies, “Lucifera.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 441-2.
Christopher Burlinson, Allegory, Space and the Material World in the Writings of Edmund Spenser (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2006), ch. 3 (“Galleries: Space, Mythography, and the Object”).
Jane Grogan, Exemplary Spenser: visual and poetic pedagogy in The Faerie Queene (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009), ch. 2 (“Spenser’s Gallery of Pictures”).
W.H. Herendeen, “Gloriana.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 333-4.
Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle (eds), Elizabeth I and Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014).
Anna Riehl, The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
[Abstract of paper by Sara N. James and Larry E. Tise, “Case Study: A portrait of Elizabeth I at Manteo.” Presented at the conference, Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage. National Portrait Gallery, London, December 2, 2010.]