National Portrait Gallery Discovers Hidden Sea in Portrait That Reveals Walter Ralegh's Secret Desire for Elizabeth I
Conservators at the National Portrait Gallery have uncovered a small painted passage of wavy blue water in a portrait of Sir WalterRalegh which reveals the depth of the explorer's devotion to Queen Elizabeth I.
The discovery was made during the making of the Gallery's forthcoming exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People (10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), supported by The Weiss Gallery, which opens tomorrow.
Found at the top left-hand corner of the painting, the sea can be made out just below an emblem of a crescent moon, indicatingRalegh's willingness to be controlled by the Queen in the same way the moon controls the tides. Elizabeth had been compared to the moon goddess Cynthia, and experts now say the newly-revealed water must refer to the explorer himself (using the pun Walter/water).
The discovery also indicates Ralegh's later letters to Elizabeth with similar coded references to moon and water, once thought to have been written while he was imprisoned for his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting in 1591, now date from the same period of the painting.
The portrait, which belongs to the National Portrait Gallery and features in the exhibition has, through the generosity of theWoodmansterne Art Conservation Awards, been painstakingly conserved and centuries of old over paint have been removed.
Widely understood as a visual statement of Ralegh's devotion to the Queen, he wears the Queen's colours of black and white and his costume is covered with pearls, which were associated with Elizabeth as symbols of virginity. The pearls on his sable-trimmed cloak form the rays of a 'sun in splendour', a heraldic device also found in portraits of the Queen, possibly reinterpreted here as a 'moon in splendour'.
Ralegh's 'Cynthia' cycle of poems written in his italic handwriting for the Queen can also be seen in the Elizabeth I and Her Peopleexhibition. The cycle was referred to in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen of 1590, and Spenser probably saw the poem in manuscript form in 1589 while both were in Ireland (one year after this portrait was painted).
In the poem Ralegh represents Elizabeth I as Cynthia, the moon goddess (a powerful, benevolent virgin, who was also known to be capricious when affronted). His use of such symbolism flatters the Queen, while recognising his own difficult position and Elizabeth's complicated relationship with her male courtiers.
The page of the poem on display in the exhibition explores the image of Ralegh as a pastoral figure serving the Queen at sea: he is the shepherd of the ocean, pining for his distant mistress, and despairing of ever finding his way back home. In a prefatory sonnet to the 1590 Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser described a work by Ralegh that addressed the Queen as 'Cynthia', which, along with the use of this motif in this portrait would suggest that Ralegh had started his poems before his spectacular fall from grace and perhaps revised them later.
Famously handsome, Walter Ralegh rose quickly in Elizabeth I's favour. Made an Esquire of the Body in 1581, he secured a patent to colonise North America in 1584 and was knighted in 1585. The portrait referred to here was painted in the year of the attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588, when Ralegh's reputation and influence soared. The previous year he had been involved in surveying England's coastal defences, and was nominated to succeed Christopher Hatton as Captain of the Guard.