Saturday, 28 January 2012

Elizabeth Stuart - Winter Queen of Bohemia: Portrait by Robert Peake

Update: 9th March, 2012

During the describing of the picture of Elizabeth Stuart in January, the National Portrait Gallery arranged for the photographer Anthony Luvera ( and
Anthony_Luvera on Twitter ) to take photographs of the group.  Because of my hip problems, I was unable to attend the February description at the NPG and Esther Collins for me to have a sneak peek of some of the photographs which the NPG are planning to use on their website.  Many thanks to Anthony for snapping me in front of the portrait of Elizabeth Stuart.  This will give you an idea of the size of the portrait at the NPG.

*** end of update

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London gave a talk for the visually impaired on a portrait of Elizabeth Stuart by Robert Peake.  ( )

Professor Whitestick meets Elizabeth Stuart at the NPG
(courtesy Anthony Luvera)

Elizabeth Stuart (19 August 1596 – 13 February 1662) was born in Falkland Palace in Fife, Scotland.  Falkland Palace is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland and is well worth a visit as it is not far from Dunfermline and Edinburgh. 

Elizabeth was born to James VI of Scotland and his wife Anne of Denmark so making her a princess in Scotland.  When her father became James I of England after the union of Crowns in 1603, the family moved from Scotland to London.  Her brother Prince Henry was the heir apparent, though died of typhoid and her other brother Charles became king on the death of King James I. 

The painting is life size and shows Elizabeth at age 14 and in the status of an English princess dressed in the Jacobean style of the time.  More information on the portrait can be found on:

and an enlarged copy of the portrait can be seen on:

The audio description of the painting was given by Lesley and there were about 5 visually impaired people and several visitors.  The painting is in Room 4, which also has paintings of James I and Shakespeare in it. 

Elizabeth takes up all of the length of the painting and the triangle base covers most of the width with her two feet just showing beneath a raised skirt.  Her dress is predominantly shimmering cream silk forming the triangle from head to toes.  There are vertical lines with the skirt.  Part of the Jacobean costume involved the skirt being draped round a farthingale.  A farthingale is a form of corsetry using ‘whalebone’ made from the jaws of a baleen whale, a toothless whale which filters food from water.  The skirt is draped over the farthingale giving the impression of the wearer gliding over a floor.  In the portrait, Elizabeth’s feet can just about be seen when I moved close to the actual painting in the gallery.

Lesley described Elizabeth’s complexion as fair with rosy cheeks and lips probably coloured with cochineal.  Her hair is raised in what could be described as a bouffant or beehive look.  Her forehead appears to be higher due to some of her hair being plucked as was the fashion at the time.  She’s wearing jewels in her hair with a coronet tiara.  There is also a double ruff round her neck.

She is said to have inherited her good looks from her mother and not from the Stuart side of the family!  She has blue eyes, almond shaped, and a fine nose, unlike the Stuarts who had round fat noses and droopy eyes.  She is shown with her hands resting on the farthingale with long fingers and standing on a Turkish carpet; Turkish carpets were fashionable at the time in London.  To her left is a Chair of Estate which indicated her rank as a royal princess of England. 

However, being a princess in a Protestant country her marriage opportunities were limited to non-Catholics, so many of the European households were ineligible.  She was betrothed and married to Fredrick V, who was Elector of the Palatinate in Germany.  Apparently, she did not think much of German culture at the time, being versed in French court protocol in much the same way as her grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots had been.  As a child, Elizabeth was raised to become a queen consort under the guidance of a Scottish noble family at Linlithgow prior to moving to London. 

In the early 17th century her marriage would have been the start of a new life with little expectation of returning to London.  Although the marriage was a happy one, it turned out to be unlucky for her as Frederick was chosen to be King of Bohemia, when the Czechs decided to decline the nomination of the Hapsburg emperor for their king.  Elizabeth became known as the Winter Queen of Bohemia and gave birth to Prince Rupert just as the religious wars in Europe during the counter reformation caused them to flee Prague Castle and move into exile around 1619-1620.  Frederick died while they were living in The Hague, in the Netherlands. 

Professor Whitestick meets Elizabeth Stuart at the NPG
(courtesy Anthony Luvera)

Lesley described her dress with the threads coated with silver gilt and spangles and how the artist had painstakingly reproduced the detail and jewels in her dress.  Discussions amongst the group were had regarding the cleaning of such garments and whether Elizabeth had a body double to model the costume while the portrait was being painted as well as Elizabeth’s connections in London during her later life.  She was still a child when the Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes occurred in 1605, though she lived to see the restoration of the Stuart family after the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I.  However, she was separated from some of her children as they either married Catholics or in turn became Catholic.  She retained her Protestant faith while in the Netherlands.  She was said to have had relationships and was described as the Queen of Hearts.  One of the group mentioned a building in the Strand area of London with connections to her.

Many thanks to the National Portrait Gallery for a very interesting 90 minute talk around the painting.  The NPG Bookshop has a selection of postcards, though none of Elizabeth Stuart.  However, a postcard of her father James I / VI is available, with the painting located next to Elizabeth Stuart’s in Room 4.  Also, NPG has an attractive little book titled Insights: Shakespeare and His Contemporaries by Charles Nicholl which is on sale for £5 and available in the bookshop.  In hardback and with 110 pages, it has many colour plates. 

A later painting of Elizabeth Stuart by Gerrit van Honthorst is owned by the National Gallery (NG6362).  It may not be on display at the moment but here is a link to it on their website:


Lesley also talked about the background to painting and artists at the time of Robert Peake.  There were many influences from the north European renaissance, with Flemish and German artists and craftsmen having an influence on the English market. 

There is currently an exhibition of royal manuscripts at the British Library.  I haven’t been to this exhibition due to my lack of mobility, but I have the catalogue and it is proving to be an interesting source of information.  I heard a comment on the radio about a new exhibition at the British Museum on the Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca) that the catalogue may be more interesting than ‘peering at tiny manuscripts in a crowded exhibition.’  This illustrates neatly the importance of audio description at the Wallace Collection in the case of manuscripts, and the royal portraits in the case of the National Portrait Gallery.  There was a continuity of skills as illuminated manuscripts featuring kings and government transformed into the art of portraiture and many of the skills in gilding were transferred to painting.  I hope to visit both the British Library and British Museum exhibitions with sighted friends and some prior knowledge of the exhibits.