Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

Nicholas HilliardAbout 1573 - About 1575

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Liverpool, United Kingdom

This famous likeness of Elizabeth I is known as the 'Pelican Portrait' because of the pendant on the Queen’s breast, representing a mother pelican feeding her young with drops of her own blood. The bird is a traditional emblem of Christian self-sacrifice. Here it symbolises the Queen’s devotion to the service of her subjects.


  • Title: Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
  • Creator: Nicholas Hilliard (called)
  • Creator Lifespan: 1547/1619
  • Date Created: About 1573 - About 1575
  • tag / style: Nicholas Hilliard; Portraiture; Elizabethan; Tudor; Elizabeth I; queen; jewellery; pelican; embroidery; fleur de lis; rose; wealth; royalty; bodice; woman; Pelican Portrait; pendant
  • Physical Dimensions: w610 x h787 cm (Without frame)
  • Artwork History: This portrait was given to the Walker Art Gallery in 1945. Previously it belonged to the Earls of Suffolk - a branch of the Howard family. According to Howard family tradition, the picture was given to them by Queen Elizabeth. However, there is no firm evidence to confirm this.
  • Artist biographical information: Nicholas Hilliard trained as a goldsmith, but by the 1570s he had become the most important painter of portrait miniatures in London, and the Queen’s principal artist. Besides miniatures he is recorded as having painted a number of full-length portraits of Elizabeth.
  • Additional artwork information: This picture was painted about 1574, when Elizabeth was aged about 41, and is known as the 'Pelican Portrait' because of the brooch Elizabeth wears at her breast. The picture is very similar in style to a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard dated 1572 which is now in the National Portrait Gallery. Hilliard is known to have painted large oil portraits of the Queen. This picture may contain some work done by a member of Hilliard workshop. There is another portrait of Elizabeth, now in the National Portrait Gallery, which is called 'The Phoenix Portrait'. This is virtually the same size and composition as the portrait you see here but is in reverse. This proves that the same pattern or cartoon has been used for both pictures and turned round. However the pictures appear to have been painted by different artists. The quality of painting in the 'Pelican Portrait' is better than the Phoenix, particularly in the handling of the hair and lace, and in the indication of space. Differences in the style of the costume indicate a later date of 1575/76 for the Phoenix Portrait. This suggests that Hilliard or one of his more senior assistants did most of the work on this painting and another follower or assistant executed the 'Phoenix Portrait' to his master's design. Although at this time, many continental Renaissance painters were trying to depict figures and space with precise realism, this painting shows little interest in the rendering of three-dimensional space. It appears flat with the emphasis on decorative effect in the use of pattern, colour and elegant line. The background is plain blue with a shadow cast behind the queen to give some suggestion of solidity. In working in this way, Hilliard was following the native English tradition of painting which was based around the art of the miniaturist or "limner". This required painting on a tiny scale and concentration on flat, decorative effects - strong three-dimensional effects created by the use of shadows were not necessary in the small-scale medium of miniature, and would have disturbed the overall decorative effect.
  • Type: Oil on wood panel
  • Rights: Presented by Alderman E Peter Jones in 1945

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