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New book offers alternative interpretation of iconic Rainbow Portrait & challenges myths of Elizabethan England

A new book by a Professor at the University of Sussex offers a new interpretation of the iconic Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I and challenges the myth that Elizabethan England was insular and xenophobic.

In Elizabethan Globalism: England, China and the Rainbow Portrait, Matthew Dimmock, Professor of Early Modern Studies, sheds light on how the nation’s increasingly global encounters, from the Caribbean to Asia, created an interest and curiosity in the wider world that resonated deeply throughout society.

He also explains why he believes that Isaac Oliver’s famous painting has a very different meaning to that of popular opinion.

Professor Dimmock said: “In the Rainbow Portrait, Queen Elizabeth wears a gown adorned with eyes and ears.

“Most readings suggest that this refers to the idea of surveillance and that, with the help of her spies, she sees and hears everything.

“However, when you take a step back and think about the events that took place leading up to when the painting was commissioned, it makes more sense for the painting to be depicting her as a figure of Fame.

“In this reading, the eyes and ears would suggestion that people around the world are looking at her and listening to her every word.”

In the book, distributed by Yale for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Professor Dimmock reconstructs a party thrown by Robert Cecil, the queen’s chief minister, to mark her visit to his new house on the Strand in 1602.

Here, a stunning display of Chinese porcelain served as a physical manifestation of how global trade and diplomacy had led to a new appreciation of foreign cultures.

The party also saw the performance of a play, written by John Davies. During the performance, a messenger arrives bearing letters to Elizabeth from the Emperor of China, who expresses deep affection and offers special trading privileges. The messenger also carries an elaborate cloak, probably the same that the queen wears in the Rainbow Portrait.

Professor Dimmock said: “While the Queen hadn’t actually received any letters from the Emperor, there was a huge focus on establishing a trade relationship with China.

“While a voyage had departed for China in the summer of 1596, nothing had been heard from its Captain since.

“However, it was crucial for England’s reputation and international alliances to celebrate the Queen’s fame and circulate a powerful image.

“Looking at the dates and the similarities, we believe that the Rainbow Portrait was commissioned as part of Cecil’s housewarming party.

“As a result, the image reflects a lot of the same messages that were circulating at the party, and it epitomises everything the Elizabethans were trying to achieve at that time.”

Elizabethan Globalism brings together a variety of different sources including play texts, inventories and artefacts to present a picture of early modern England as an outward-looking nation.

One of the artefacts prominently included in the book is a globe made by Elizabethan cartographer and mathematician Emery Molyneux in 1592. Currently held at nearby Petworth House, it is the earlier of only two surviving versions.

The Rainbow Portrait is currently on loan from Hatfield House and available to see at a public exhibition show at Hampton Court Palace between 12th October 2019 and 23rd February 2020. It is thought to be the first time in decades that the artwork has left Hatfield, where it is usually on display. 

Find out more about Elizabethan Globalism: England, China and the Rainbow Portrait by Matthew Dimmock online.


By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Wednesday, 13 November 2019

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