Elizabeth I but not as you know her - The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England, Paul Delaroche, 1828TWITTER/ARTMENTORS

The face does not reveal itself immediately. Pale as the pillows behind its malnourished skull, it affects a sort of camouflage against the cushioned dais; skin grey, waxen, shining with painted sweat. It is the face of a monarch, although now, minutes from death, she appears more crone than Queen; if it weren’t for the sturdy Tudor nose and the crop of pearl-strung hair, one would be forgiven for mistaking her for an aged ragwoman.

“—but the woman at the centre of them all is undeniably the same, her painters following the guidelines of a court like a tyrannical PR team”

Delaroche’s The Death of Elizabeth I is a painting typical of him but not of her. Elizabeth’s portraits are all famously alike, thanks in part to the stencilled template her commissioned painters were instructed to follow—the large white face, patrician stare, and a long nose that all married together to give her the look of something like a cross between a barn owl and an alabaster tomb effigy. Spins were taken – Metsys’ Sieve Portrait depicts her slightly mournful with a lively court just out of sight, and the Armada Portrait infamously depicts her pale hand on the globe as an expectant mother might frame her bump – but the woman at the centre of them all is undeniably the same, her painters following the guidelines of a court like a tyrannical PR team. The propaganda machine of the Cult of Gloriana had created an impenetrable figure: androgynous, regal, and commanding. Men and women alike would sport the ruffs and pearls, meaning that when coupled with the undeniable physical likeness to her father, Elizabeth’s image is as clear in its majesty as it is unclear in its gender.

It is an image that could draw criticism if utilised by women in the public eye today, in an era when we have allegedly moved on from the superficial brand of GirlBoss #feminism, where simply wearing a trouser suit and having a graphic text phone wallpaper of an AOC quote was enough to call yourself an activist. In fashioning herself into an androgynous monarch, melding virginal pearls with shoulder pads even Ms. Thatcher would envy, Gloriana seems to deem the feminine an unusable sartorial device in the monarch’s public image; the hand on the globe may evoke the maternal, but it importantly is not. I sacrificed my womanhood for you, those imperious eyes seem to say with their dictatorial stare; I may be heirless, but this country is the product of my own immaculate conception.

Lanthimos's Queen Anne - a post-menopausal depressive in ermineWINDSORGUILDHALL/TWITTER

And yet Gloriana’s near tyrannical influence over her own perception died along with her. By the time of Delaroche, over two centuries from the death of the Queen, she was effectively what we would deem public domain. Delaroche is famed for not treating the figures of French and British history with the near-holy reverence typical of artistic Academicism. His Jane Grey kneels blindfolded in straw to soak up her blood with frantic hands outstretched; his Napoleon, riskily, seems to shiver, dwarfed by his winter coat and the harsh snowscape; and his princes in the tower cower and cling to one another in real, human terror. This humanity of composition is coupled with a melodramatic literariness (as opposed to the more fashionable Romantic pictorial sensibility) in the flat theatrical scenes, where monarchs or biblical figures are stripped of their divinity and painted plainly as theatrical actors—Cromwell never lifted the coffin lid of Charles Stuart, Grey was not executed in a gloomy dungeon, and Elizabeth almost certainly didn’t die on the floor, but who cares about accuracy when the story could be just that little bit more graphic? Lanthimos’ The Favourite is something of a modern inheritor of this philosophy: Queen Anne is no more than a rouge-cheeked post-menopausal depressive in ermine, to be portrayed as grotesquely and melodramatically as any other.

“one might wonder if Delaroche’s philosophy of treating history as the melodramas of ordinary people is making a comeback”

With last month’s criticism of The Crown for being liberal at best with historical accuracy, one might wonder if Delaroche’s philosophy of treating history as the melodramas of ordinary people is making a comeback; Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher falling somewhere between campy pantomime villain and husky voiced geriatric has become Tiktok meme fodder in a way that Meryl Streep’s more faithful biopic iteration of the premier never could. Evidently just as in Delaroche’s gallery openings, people still crave the delicious archness of historical inaccuracy.


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And so we return to The Death of Elizabeth I, and the cadaverous face among the silks. A Queen humbled, recumbent on the floor in the pose of a gisant, lower than her successor, her ministers, even her maids. Delaroche refuses her nobility, and in doing so undoes a culture of deifying history and its autocratic figures—something particularly appealing now, when statues of once revered slavers finally fall as unceremoniously as felled trees. Churchill’s war successes won’t save his marble effigy from those enraged by his vitriolic nationalism; Colston’s philanthropy offers no protection from protestors that loudly decry his white supremacy. Delaroche proleptically imagines this cultural impatience with treating history’s autocrats with such reverence, his painted desacralisation of the monarchy handled with as much theatricality as 2020s spate of de-plinthings. The Queen is dead, the statues are toppled, the people have spoken, and they say this: apotheosis is just so incredibly démodé.