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A 16th Century portrait of a Gentleman believed to be Francis Drake, dated 1588


Artist: English School

In profile to the left, wearing a white doublet with fine lace ruff, beard and moustache
oil on copper, framed and glazed , inscribed A 1588 at the top and AETAS 46 at the bottom

Provenance: A distinguished deceased Lady's Estate, who purchased it in Paris

Miniatures were popular among 16th-century elites, mainly in England and France. The earliest 16th century miniatures were all round but toward the end of the century the oval upright form appeared and has retained its popularity ever since. The rectangular shape was also introduced. Here one can see a combination of the two new formats.

Early Limnings (paintings in little) were painted in gouache on vellum or oil, oil miniatures being executed on metal, wood or slate. Many of the oils are beautifully painted and of great historic interest, but as they are rarely signed very little is known about the artist who painted them. It is very apparent that this miniature is painted by a talented artist who probably worked predominately for the Royal family and its court.

This miniature follows the tradition of other 16th century miniatures in that is is inscribed with a date and age of the sitter. Miniatures were painted to mark an occasion such as an engagement, or marriage, or painted to mark an important point/event in time, as seems to be the case here.

The significance of the year 1588 is an extremely important one for Queen Elizabeth and her nation. King Philip II of Spain launched his 'Armada' to conquer England. Philip devised his plan to invade England by means of the Armada during the period 1570 to 1588, his purpose being to depose the heretic Protestant Queen Elizabeth and reinstate the Catholic religion in England. Philip had been the husband of the Catholic Queen Mary and considered himself King of England until Mary's death in 1558.

Against her initial inclination, Queen Elizabeth I of England had increasingly become a figurehead for the Protestant struggle in France and the Netherlands, where the Dutch were in revolt against Spanish rule. Her subjects had enraged the Spanish King by raiding his American possessions and even the coastline of Spain itself: Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587.

The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth and issued an encyclical absolving Catholics from their allegiance to the English Crown, encouraging a series of plots to murder the Queen, who in turn beheaded the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, the focus of the plots. Mary's execution was the final spur for the Spanish invasion of England.

An invasion of England could only end in disaster and disgrace. The one candidate most associated with the defeat of the Armada was Sir Francis Drake. Drake was a gifted sailor and leader of men but he was also a flamboyant showman. His part in the defeat of the Armada has overshadowed the part played by the man who actually lead the English Navy - Lord Howard of Effingham. Drake had to follow orders, and while he should get some of the credit for the fire ships that broke up the Armada at Gravelines, this ploy had to receive Effingham's support first.

However, Drake is credited with training his men in the art of broadside. Traditionally, naval ships fought close to one another to allow boarding parties to gain control of the enemy's ships so that they themselves could use them. Drake got his ships to sail in line and sail alongside his enemy but at a distance. He then got his gunners to fire a murderous volley at the enemy with the sole purpose of sinking them. it was a highly effective strategy.

Drake was a loyal subject of Elizabeth I and his place in British History is due to more than just his involvement in the Spanish Armada. Drake seemed to epitomise the glories of Tudor England. Form 1577 to 1580, Drake circumnavigated the world. This was a huge achievement and by doing only this, Drake would have won his place in English history.

This miniature bears a resemblance to other known images of Sir Francis Drake, namely in the long thin nose, and high forehead, coupled with the receding hair line, pointed moustache and beard.

Nicholas Hilliard, who was appointed by Queen Elizabeth as her official limner, or miniature painter, painted Drake's portrait in 1581. (see image). Hilliard shows Drake wearing a fine white doublet, which is possibly even the same costume as shown in this oil portrait. The purposes of HIlliard's miniature was to mark the occasion of his knighthood, in 1581, hence the gold chain around his neck. It is interesting to note that the chain of office is missing in the oil miniature, dated 1588. However, what is more interesting, is to understand the significance of the use of the profile position.

Profile miniatures were relatively uncommon in the Elizabethan portraiture. They occur in their originating form as copies of medals of Roman Emperors in the prime source for the beginning of portrait miniature painting. The use of the profile in this oil, providing a symbolic link with the power, strength and commanding traits of an Emperor are surely not coincidental in this portrait. In 1588, Drake would have been seen as a hero of the nation. So the artist wanted to raise Drake up on a platform equal to that of the rulers of the Roman era, beyond a Knight (as in Hilliard's image), propelling him to a level of Deity. The artist is putting Drake on an equal level reserved for Kings, Queens and members of the Royal court. (It is interesting to note that Isaac Oliver's only two known profile miniatures were of Royalty, namely Henry Prince of Wales and Queen Anne of Denmark) .

It has not been possible to ascertain with any certainty who painted this fabulous portrait, as so few artist working in oil ever signed, it may never be possible to discern who the artist is. However, what is certain is it a well executed and powerful image of an Elizabethan hero.
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