Team seeking answers about Queen Elizabeth painting
All chat excitedly as they wait for her arrival, talk about what they’ve found the last two months as they gazed at her under magnification or ultraviolet light.
ECU conservator Susanna Grieve lifts a blue, quilted blanket off an inconspicuous black box in the corner and folds back two protective wooden panels. The flashes of visiting media fire, but she remains still, not looking altogether pleased – the left side of her face screwed into a near grimace.
But the flaming hair and porcelain skin equally saddled with heavy, dewy pearls leave no doubt. It’s Queen Elizabeth I immortalized in paint, the portrait the size of so many posters hanging in nearby dorm rooms.
There is much more the experts in the room don’t know. Those details include when she was painted, who painted her and how she wound up sitting in a gatehouse where visitors paid admission to visit a Dare County historical attraction.
A team at ECU is determined to find out.
The portrait was purchased from the Berry-Hill Gallery in New York City, according to June Bell, governing board chairwoman for the Elizabethan Gardens. She and Dare County historians have been cobbling together a past for the painting in attempts to help the authentication process.
Bell thinks a North Carolina garden club and a private donor matched funds to purchase it for about $3,000, and it was bought specifically to hang in the gatehouse.
It’s been cleaned several times, twice in-state but once in Washington, D.C. People passed the queen every day, but no one ever expressed a thought that she might be worth something, Bell said. Six million dollars, actually, is where estimates have come in if she’s all she’s cracked up to be.
And cracked she is, Grieve said, and weathered. It’s Grieve’s job to verify the information estimates are based on: that the portrait was painted in 1592, possibly by Tudor court artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and was crafted late in the queen’s life – a period which historians say she went to great lengths to destroy.
“I looked at her, and she was amazing,” Grieve recalled. “The way she’s posed and looks at you, it’s like ‘Wow. This is the queen.’”
She described the persistent glare as they tried to photograph the work, quipping, “It’s almost like she wasn’t giving us anything to work with.”
Grieve was hired last July to reinvigorate ECU’s conservation program, and history professor Larry Tise put her to work straight away. He noticed the painting years ago in his prior work as director of the state archives. It became his personal goal to see it identified and properly stored. It took more than two years to convince the board.
Tise has done some authentication of his own though he, like Grieve, is more at home with artifacts than art. Honored as the Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History, he’s identified a table from the Wright brothers’ camp and targets they used for shooting practice.
“Eastern North Carolina is a treasure trove of things sitting around that people have seen and don’t really know what they are,” Tise said.
The team tries a different authentication procedure on the painting every Wednesday from 3-5 p.m. Each is noninvasive. This week, they used an X-ray fluorescent spectrometer, which measures levels of elements on the painting’s surface. Those can help identify the type of pigments, which are matched with the time period artists used them.
“We do science,” Grieve said.
There are symbols on the back – a V and a six – and the professors conjecture the body and background may have been painted prior to the head and face. The portrait has been restored a few times, each one masking potential clues, Grieve said. Many details remain a mystery.
There’s been no “smoking gun” to prove authenticity, Grieve said. But the team also has found nothing that proves otherwise, including a prior study conducted in 1985.
This high-profile project could show the world ECU is equipped to take on this kind of research. Tise hopes it will be “a lightning rod” for other challenges and notes that no other state schools are actively authenticating and preserving state artifacts.
Professors already made headway with preservation work on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the remains of a 300-year-old ship piloted by infamous pirate Blackbeard. That’s been possible because the university has one of only three underwater archeology programs in the nation.
“We’re here to help preserve North Carolina cultural heritage, their family heritage,” said Grieve, who said her students are doing pro-bono work for the Village of Yesteryear and are willing to take on more local projects.
As for the queen, she again will be on display Aug. 19, as Dare County and the Elizabethan Gardens celebrate the anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth. Historians believe Dare to be the first child born in the new world.
Bell said her board is not even talking about how conditions might change if the painting is as valuable as estimates project.
“I don’t even want to get my hopes up that high,” she said.
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