At the beginning of February, Sara Nair James, professor of art history at Mary Baldwin, visited a familiar face at the Folger Shakespeare Library — an original 16th century painting of Queen Elizabeth I, owned by the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, North Carolina. The portrait appears in the exhibition “Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland” on display January 19–May 19. James was part of the team that authenticated the painting in summer 2010.
“Having the painting on display at the Folger gives it some recognition; if it were a fake, they wouldn’t want it,” James ’69 said.
The exhibition focuses on Irish-language manuscripts and rare materials from the 16th to mid-17th century. The curators included the portrait because Elizabeth I ruled over Ireland, and Irish chieftains revolted against her rule during the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603).
Since summer 2010, James and her colleagues have come to the conclusion that a committee of artists, not Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger alone, painted the piece. Portraits were popular status symbols in England, and many were shop pieces in which different artists would paint the face, dress, heraldry, background, or landscape elements. This Elizabeth I portrait was liberally copied from the famous Ditchley portrait by Gheeraerts.
“This portrait is unusual in that it shows Queen Elizabeth in her old age, with wrinkles crossing her jaw line,” said James.
The Associated Press recently published a story on the portrait and CNBC filmed it in mid-February for an episode of “Treasure Detectives” that will air in March or April. Technicians also performed new X-ray fluorescence tests that yielded much clearer results on its paint materials. When the Folger exhibition closes in May, the portrait will return to North Carolina.