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Historic Armada portrait secured for the nation

Negotiated through Christie’s, the most famous depiction of Queen Elizabeth I can now be enjoyed for generations to come

The historic Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I has been secured for Britain after months of campaigning, through a private sale negotiated by Christie's.

This iconic image has been acquired by the Royal Museums Greenwich, London, supported by grants and donations in excess of £10 million from, among others, the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and more than 8,000 donations from members of the public. The occasion marks the first time the painting has entered public ownership in its 425-year history.

Painted circa 1590, the work commemorates the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588, remembered as the most famous conflict of Elizabeth I’s 45-year reign (1558-1603). The inspiration for countless portrayals of Elizabeth I in film and on stage, it is one of the most famous images in British history, capturing a vital moment in the English Renaissance. 

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, English school, circa 1590
The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, English school, circa 1590

When she sat for the portrait Elizabeth I was in her late 50s, and at the height of her power. Immediately prior to the Armada victory, in August 1588, she had given a speech that would come to be the most famous of her tenure, telling her troops at Tilbury: ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…’

Unusual for its horizontal format and large size (110.5 x 125 cm), the portrait is thought to have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral of the English Fleet against the Spanish Armada, and one of the great heroes of Queen Elizabeth’s court. It is one of three surviving versions of the Armada portrait, together with those currently on display at Woburn Abbey and at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The work has been held by descendants of Drake since at least 1775, when it was first recorded, and has been offered from the collection of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family estate. It has hung in the family home, although it has also featured in public exhibitions at The National Portrait Gallery and The National Maritime Museum in London, and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the United States. 

A representative of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family commented: 'On behalf of the Tyrwhitt-Drakes, I am delighted that this exceptional work has been safeguarded for future generations to admire in Royal Museums Greenwich for decades to come. The significance of the work can be seen in the context of our nation’s great history, and I would like to thank Christie’s for furthering the relationship with the museum and all partners who have made this possible.'

The Armada Portrait has been on view in Greenwich since the fundraising campaign began on 23 May, and will now officially enter the collection of The National Maritime Museum Greenwich. The acquisition takes place in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, and the work is set to hang in the newly-renovated Queen’s House, on the site of the original Greenwich Palace, where Elizabeth I was born.  

The acquisition of the work by the Royal Museums Greenwich follows the Christie’s-facilitated private sale of Rembrandt’s portraits of Maerten Soolmans and his wife Oopjen Coppit to the French and Dutch states in February 2016.