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ECU history professor Larry Tise discusses findings on the Queen Elizabeth I portrait, returned to the Elizabethan Gardens in Roanoke Island following five months of analysis at the university. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Queen returns to her gardens, part of the mystery remains

By Jeannine Manning Hutson

MANTEO–A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which had been at East Carolina University for five months being analyzed and studied, returned to Roanoke Island in August, just in time for the annual “Celebration of the Queen” at the Elizabethan Gardens.

Dr. Larry Tise, the Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History at ECU, presented Aug. 19 the ECU group’s findings on its analysis of pigment in the portrait and infrared images, along with research trying to answer the question: How and when did the portrait come to the United States?

Tise told the members of the Elizabethan Gardens that he and the other researchers are certain that the portrait is from the studio of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and was painted in 1592, when the monarch would have been about 60 years old.

“Even though it’s been in the Gatehouse for a number of years exposed to the elements, such as humidity, everyone has been impressed with its good condition,” Tise said. He noted that the painting had been cleaned from time to time at the N.C. Museum of Art through the years when it was housed there during the off-tourist season, but no significant modification was noted in the historical character of the painting or its wooden frame.

The Elizabethan Gardens’ portrait is one of only a few portraits of Queen Elizabeth I painted later in her life.  When Tise was in London earlier this summer researching several projects, he went to the National Portrait Gallery in London and stood before the Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1592.

The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth came to the throne, at the age of 25, on the death of her half-sister Mary I in 1558 and reigned until 1603.

That painting shows Queen Elizabeth standing upon a map of England and is one of the largest surviving full-length portraits of the queen. It is named the Ditchley Portrait because it was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee and painted at his estate in Ditchley, near Oxford, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Tise pointed out that accompanying portraits from that time period can be freehand or traced versions of the original, in this case the large Ditchley Portrait. Tise told the group on Aug. 19 that they are positive that the Elizabethan Gardens portrait of the queen is a concurrent freehand painted version – based on, but a unique variation of the famous Ditchley Portrait.

“From the point of view of an object, we can find out more. We have been getting infrared images from other institutions of Queen Elizabeth portraits to compare and that’s how we can say definitely it’s a freehand painted portrait. This one is not traced,” Tise said.

Through pigment analysis, the researchers saw a difference in the composition of the paint from the face to the neck area. “We believe one artist painted the background and her gown, and then the master artist came in to paint her face,” Tise said.

The group of experts and researchers were led by Tise and Susanne Grieve, both of the ECU Department of History, and included Joe Barricella from Joyner Library, who took the infrared images of the painting. Also working on the portrait’s mystery was Tama Creef, a Roanoke Island historian, and Sara James, an art historian at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

“What we have been able to do is take images through infrared photography and X-ray technology to look at her bones so to speak,” Tise said. “We never touched the portrait at ECU, even when we were doing pigment analysis. All procedures were of a non-invasive nature.”

“The paint is original to the 16th century. A little touching up here and there. But it is mainly just as it was when it was painted in the 16th century. Paint from the 20th century was only found in the jewels on the crown,” he said.

Little is known about the painting before it was purchased in the 1950s by Ruth Coltrane Cannon, who was a champion of preserving North Carolina’s history, especially relating to the Colonial period.  Cannon was in New York purchasing items to fill New Bern’s Tryon Palace and “she saw this portrait in a magazine in 1958 and said it will be great for the new project at the Elizabethan Gardens,” Tise said.

Members of the Garden Club of North Carolina contributed $500 toward the purchase, which Tise noted would have been much more than that. Members of the Garden Club also contributed funds to furnish the Elizabethan Gardens with period pieces or high-end furniture reproductions.

The gardens opened in 1960 as a tribute to the 1584-87 English explorers who came to Roanoke Island.

So, even though some of the history of the Queen Elizabeth I portrait has been solved, the portrait’s history prior to being purchased for the Elizabethan Garden remains a mystery. For now, Tise said.  “We are so close to figuring out where this came from. I wish I could tell you that it came from this or that house in England, but not today.”

“We think we have found that this portrait wasn’t originally sold in 1958,” Tise said. “We think it was sold originally in 1926, but I can’t say that today.”

"Stay tuned," he told the group of well-wishers who had gathered to greet the return of the historic queen's portrait to the only home it has known for the last half century.

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This story appeared originally in the Aug. 27, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at