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A competition for re-presentation: Elizabeth I in contemporary art

by Christina Faraday • June 2024 • Journal article


In the last few decades, a small but notable number of contemporary artists have embraced an unlikely muse: Elizabeth I, one of England’s most famous queens. Practitioners as diverse as Linder (b.1954), Natasja Kensmil (b.1973), Grayson Perry (b.1960) and Stephen Farthing (b.1950) have looked to Elizabeth’s person and portraiture as a means of interrogating Britain’s complex histories.1 This article will focus on the work of three artists, The Singh Twins (b.1966), Chan-Hyo Bae (b.1975) and Mat Collishaw (b.1966), who have deployed Elizabeth I’s image to explore, respectively: the ongoing effects of empire, trade and colonial exploitation; the relationship between gender, race and power; and the role that art can play in revealing, or blurring, the line between visual or mechanical artifice and reality.

Elizabeth I’s attraction for artists stems partly from the seismic events that took place during her reign. Her rule from 1558 until her death in 1603 saw: attempts to establish the first English colony in the New World; the first instance of the triangular slave trade in the Atlantic; the consolidation of the Church of England; and the founding of the Guinea, Russia, Barbary and East India trading companies. There were also extraordinary changes in the visual arts during the period, including the rise of Britain’s first native celebrity artists, who, together with a host of feted immigrant artisans, created the iconic image of the ‘Virgin Queen’ that survives to this day. The development of her image was by no means assured, however, and the story of her portraiture reveals her gradual transmutation from a real, human subject – a ‘weak and feeble woman’ as she described herself in her Armada speech at Tilbury – to an ageless, sexless symbol, a supra-human icon embodying England and its nascent empire.2

The tension inherent in this dual identity posed a problem for Elizabeth’s own portraitists, but it has also stoked the interest of contemporary artists, who embrace both facets of the last Tudor queen. Some of these artists look to Elizabeth I as fons et origo, using her image as shorthand for the influential historical events and broader themes of her reign. In doing so, they follow the precedent set by the queen’s own royal propagandists, imbuing her image with the weight of an entire society. Others seek to subvert this impersonal framing, attempting to imagine the real historical person behind the ‘mask of youth’ created by her artists.3 The malleability of Elizabeth’s image was widely exploited in her own time – historians have identified a ‘competition for representation’ between Elizabeth and her various court factions.4 Among the contemporary artists under discussion here, a similar contest to re-present Elizabeth is taking place: a dialogue of competing ideas about how to manage Britain’s unruly past in the conflicted present.

In modern and contemporary art, references to historical figures and artistic styles are often associated with postmodernity.5 Postmodernism’s delight in bricolage, eclecticism and historical reference was firstly and most clearly identified in architecture, operating as a counterblast to high modernist suspicions of ‘uncreative’ historicity.6 In the hands of postmodern artists, such eclectic references were typically deployed in the service of parody or pastiche.7 In recent decades, however, these themes have come to seem dissatisfyingly, even unethically, empty to many artists, and they have begun to reject the ‘postmodern’ label as a result. For example, The Singh Twins instead propose their own label, ‘Past-Modern’, to emphasise the sincerity of their use of ‘traditional and non-western aesthetics’.8

Although no consensus has yet emerged on what follows postmodernism, or even whether postmodernism is truly over, sincerity is one of several distinctive features repeatedly identified in cultural products of recent decades. Other related traits include a re-emergence of the ethical, an interest in authenticity and a renewed faith in the possibility of communication, albeit tempered by ‘spectres’ of postmodern doubt and irony.9 Critics have sometimes identified the coexistence of both approaches within a single artist’s œuvre, or even a single work of art: ‘[artists] can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind’.10 This is true of the works under discussion here. Artists sometimes deploy Elizabeth judgmentally or parodically, as the emblem of a Western culture ripe for critique, but their works simultaneously embrace, even celebrate, the aesthetic richness of that culture. This paradox mirrors the complexity of Elizabeth as a subject: artists are drawn to her as a historical figurehead to be analysed and criticised, but also as a real person, to be sympathised with, even pitied.11

This article attempts to bridge a further duality: that between the contemporary artist’s (ab)use of Elizabethan art in the present moment and the scholar’s approach to that art in its original context, as the subject of historical study. Contemporary works will be compared with images from the sixteenth century, revealing affinities that stretch across time. Some of the historical works are consciously invoked by the contemporary artist, whereas others haunt their twenty-first-century descendants like unquiet ghosts. All point to deeper resonances between the art of Elizabeth’s own time and that of today. In this sense, the present author follows other scholars who have juxtaposed premodern and contemporary works, notably Alexander Nagel, who sees in contemporary art a return of ‘pre-Enlightenment modalities’.12 The parallels identified in this article suggest that, in their search for an art beyond postmodernity, contemporary practitioners are consciously or unconsciously rediscovering much older modes of thought and practice.


Re-emblematising Elizabeth

The identical twins Amrit and Rabindra Singh were born in Richmond, London, and raised in a traditional Indian extended family in the Liverpool area, where they continue to work as a single artistic entity known as The Singh Twins. They draw inspiration from a variety of traditional global art forms, especially the Indo-Persian art of miniature painting, which was first popularised at the court of the Mughal emperors in the sixteenth century.13 The Twins’ ‘Past-Modern’ style embraces the miniature’s visual forms and its process of creation through a contemporary lens, using it to create modern-day domestic scenes, sociocultural narratives and satirical commentaries. Their work often critiques Britain’s imperial past, while celebrating positive legacies such as multiculturalism. For the artists, Elizabeth I simultaneously serves as a focus of historical accountability and as a subversively playful and decorative interruption to the negativity of postcolonial critique.

The Twins’ adoption of the miniature’s flattened, pattern-like emphasis on colour and line itself represents a rejection of Western post-Renaissance principles of linear perspective and chiaroscuro. At university in the 1980s, they were advised by teachers to differentiate their art from one another’s and to look to Western models for inspiration. But the miniature tradition offered the perfect mode of resistance to both instructions. Mughal miniatures were originally produced in karkhanas (workshops), where the labours of many individual artists were absorbed seamlessly into a single work of art.14 This process of creation mirrors The Twins’ own collaborative approach, offering an alternative model for collective practice in the present day. Such methods were also common in sixteenth-century England: most works of art were produced in workshops with a master and apprentices, and the subject-matter, quality and materials were often of more importance than the name of individual artists.

Embracing visual and historical references to Western and non-Western forms, The Twins’ work offers lessons in cultural entanglement that can be aligned with Slavoj Žižek’s concept of ‘enthusiastic resignation’.15 Saidiya Hartman deploys this concept in her essay ‘Venus in two acts’, which concerns the impossibility of ever fully recovering people and cultures that have been written out of the colonialist record.16 Although Hartman is ‘resigned’ to the impossibility of recovery, that very resignation paradoxically incites ‘enthusiasm’, a Kantian affect in which the mind ‘soar[s] above obstacles of sensibility’.17 Whereas in Žižek’s formulation, ‘enthusiastic resignation’ is strictly concerned with the ‘failure of representation’, Hartman’s invocation of the term follows swiftly from her reading of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred (1979), in which the time-travelling protagonist discovers that she cannot free her enslaved ancestors and ‘comes to accept that they have made her own existence possible’.18 Accepting the impossibility of altering the historical conditions that led to the present therefore becomes a further component of ‘enthusiastic resignation’. In their artistic practice, The Twins simultaneously critique Britain’s imperial past and celebrate the modern-day multiculturality it has produced, including their own father’s arrival in England in 1948. This ambivalence is evocative of ‘enthusiastic resignation’, as is their ongoing appreciation for Tudor history and art, despite its unsavoury associations.

One of The Twins’ most piquant explorations of this theme to date occurs in Slaves of Fashion, a mixed-media series that incorporates hand-painted and digitally created imagery, which was first exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, in 2018. The Twins began the series after encountering a collection of eighteenth-century Indian fabrics in the Musée d’histoire de Nantes, which were originally commissioned by a French patron to be traded for African slaves. This unexpected involvement (knowing or otherwise) of Indian artisans in an atrocity usually perceived as a Western phenomenon triggered a desire to explore ongoing legacies of the global trade in luxury goods and their ties to histories of Empire, colonialism and enslavement.19

In the Slaves of Fashion series, Elizabeth I plays several roles. She makes cameo appearances in Indigo: The Colour of India FIG. 1 and Chintz: The Price of Luxury FIG. 2, in inset scenes in the bottom FIG. 3 and the top left respectively FIG. 4, two works from a set of life-size symbolic portraits that respond to objects in the collections of the National Museums Liverpool. She takes centre stage in the panel Trade Wars FIG. 5, one of a set of companion pieces or commentaries that draw out contemporary resonances from the historical themes found in the portrait panels. Finally, she features in the left wing of the triptych Rule Britannia: Legacies of Exchange FIG. 6, an exploration of Indo-British history commissioned for the travelling exhibition Splendours of the Subcontinent organised by the Royal Collection Trust in 2018.20 In each case, Elizabeth is represented as she appears in the Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard FIG. 7, which is in the Walker Art Gallery collection.

Elizabeth’s presence in these images is primarily explained by her status as the monarch who incorporated the East India Company in 1600, granting exclusive permission to trade with all countries situated between the Cape of Good Hope and modern-day Chile. Although the company’s voyages only began in earnest under Elizabeth’s successor, James VI and I – whose reign also saw England’s first direct contact with the Mughal Court – Elizabeth granted the East India Company their charter, a significant early step on the path to empire and colonialism. In the allegorical portraits Indigo: The Colour of India and Chintz: The Price of Luxury, Elizabeth signifies the interests of the powerful, and their ability to create regulations that have far-reaching consequences, even for people beyond their official jurisdiction or their own period in history.

But there are other resonances between the themes of the series and Elizabeth’s representations. In Hilliard’s Pelican Portrait, the queen’s image is transformed into an emblem of her power and coveted global reach. She wears pearls sourced from the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean, ostrich feathers traded via Africa and diamonds and rubies that were possibly mined in India. The paint itself contains the pigments red lake and indigo, both of which had origins in India. Hilliard took these ‘exotic’ specimens, along with their embedded allusions to international trade, and subsumed them into an image of English power. In Trade Wars The Singh Twins replace some of Elizabeth’s ornaments with key commodities in Britain’s later global trade: nutmeg, cloves, chintz, coffee, pepper, raw cotton, sugar and rum. By transforming the queen’s costume, they reinscribe the portrait’s original allusions and enhance their legibility for a contemporary audience. At the same time, Elizabeth herself becomes the ‘exotic’ interloper, whose recontextualisation provokes an explicit meditation on the consequences of global power and trade.

Other features of Trade Wars highlight the exploitative practices that underpinned Britain’s later imperial networks: the Tudor rose to the left of Elizabeth’s head perches on top of a cannon and a chain and shackle, and is paired with an East India Company ship to the right. Directly underneath Elizabeth a banner reads ‘Jamaica Street’ – a reference to British sugar plantation colonies in Jamaica. These were a development of the 1640s, which post-dates Elizabeth I’s death, but can be seen as stemming from English excursions in the New World during her reign. Indeed, further references to later colonial conflicts, including the Opium Wars, the annexation of the Punjab, the Boston Tea Party and the American War of Independence, among more recent events, are also centred on Elizabeth’s image, framing her reign as the opening act in the commercially motivated imperial and colonial conquests of the following centuries.

However, although Trade Wars posits Elizabeth, somewhat ahistorically, as the originator of a litany of atrocities that followed her reign, the choice of the Pelican Portrait offers playful resistance to the expected negative overtones of anticolonial critique. Widely recognised as one of the most charismatic paintings of the age, the Pelican Portrait exhibits superficial decorativeness and linearity, features that, in fact, Tudor art shares with Mughal miniatures. The Twins’ repeated return to this portrait bears witness to their enthusiasm for Hilliard’s painting, which they describe as one of their ‘favourite historical artworks’.21 Although deployed primarily as a vehicle for their critique of the legacies of her reign, The Twins’ evident aesthetic delight in the image evokes the complexities of cultural entanglement that their wider work addresses.

This is made explicit in the triptych Rule Britannia: Legacies of Exchange, in which Elizabeth, on the left, is paired with Queen Victoria on the right. The juxtaposition of the two monarchs evokes the negative trajectory from the proto-imperial developments of Elizabeth’s reign to the explicitly colonial themes of Victoria’s. This is tempered by the more positive vision, in the central panel, of the many contributions that South Asian peoples have made to modern British culture. These are represented by references to Indian-inspired works by British designers such as William De Morgan (1839–1917) and William Morris (1834–96), and by figures including the First World War nurse and suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876–1948), the Punjabi musicians Malkit Singh (b.1963) and Gurdas Maan (b.1957), the Punjabi Bhangra-British fusion dance duo Signature and Suleman Mirza Sake Dean Mahomed (c.1759–1851), who first introduced Indian cuisine and shampoo to Britain. Elizabeth’s reign is consequently presented as the origin point for a host of barbarisms, with violent, exploitative and irreversible legacies that still weigh heavy in the present, but also for the cascade of events that introduced the richness of South Asian culture to Britain. The Twins’ work embraces this paradox with ‘enthusiastic resignation’.


Re-enacting Elizabeth

The artist Chan-Hyo Bae was born in South Korea and, after working as a photojournalist, moved to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in 2005. In his photographic series Existing in Costume (2006–07), the artist appears wearing historical women’s attire, white make-up, jewels and wigs borrowed from the National Theatre, London, and various film companies. Bae represents himself in this way as a means of ‘performing’ ethnicity and gender, in the philosophical tradition of J.L. Austin and of Judith Butler, as well as in the literal sense of dramaturgical mimesis.22 The theatrical role-playing of Bae’s photographs follow in the footsteps of such artists as Cindy Sherman (b.1954), who uses similar means to explore the constructed nature of femininity.23 For Bae, the act of cross-dressing in historical clothing also allows him to explore his feelings of alienation and dissonance following his move to London, probing what he has described as his own ‘cultural fantasy’ for Western society, and his disillusionment in the face of the prejudice he has encountered.24

In Existing in Costume, poses, compositions, colour contrasts and elaborate period settings are all lifted from the English portrait tradition, but by casting himself, dressed in women’s clothes, in a genre predominantly associated with the representation of white men, the expectations of viewers are doubly undermined. Bae disrupts the artifice of the images with a variety of intrusions: for example, the contrast of his whitened face and décolletage with his un-made-up hands, and his consistently defiant outward stare. He thus aims to make explicit what he identifies as the ‘aggressive’ undertone of much Western portraiture, in which the sitter’s ‘superiority and tough spirits are maximised’.25 But the ‘direct look’, as it is referred to in critical visual studies, can be interpreted in in a number of ways.

In his work on Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Males (1983) and The Black Book (1986), the art historian and cultural critic Kobena Mercer sees the ‘direct look’ of Mapplethorpe’s black models as ‘emphasis[ing …] maximum distance between the spectator and the unattainable object of desire’. Mercer argues that ‘although it plays on the active/passive tension of seeing/being seen’, it ultimately fails to ‘challenge’ the white male artist’s assertion of a ‘feminizing’ gaze over the ‘passive’ black male body.26 In Bae’s work, however, the artist is both subject and author: a power dynamic that is very different from Mapplethorpe’s relationship to his Black models. In Bae’s case, the ‘direct look’ arguably promotes self-awareness in the viewer, disrupting the inherent voyeurism of the typically white male gaze that the Western tradition of portraiture envisages.27

A further dimension to the ‘direct look’ aligns Bae’s works with the ‘ethical turn’ seen in art ‘since’ postmodernism. A key figure for this movement is the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose ideas have received renewed interest since the late twentieth century.28 Levinas argued that the face-to-face encounter with the ‘Other’ serves as the foundation for ‘an ethical relation’, instilling in the subject a moral obligation to serve the ‘Other’.29 Although Levinas primarily envisaged this taking place in person, Bae’s work seems to stage precisely the kind of direct encounter that Levinas described. His photographs have the potential to mobilise an ethical response from the viewer, as their presentation of ‘Otherness’ is heightened by the surreal nature of his staging, particularly his costumes.

Bae’s deployment of cross-dressing underlines his critique of the widely recognised Western tendency to feminise the East, but it also seeks to destabilise traditional binaries: between East and West, male and female, past and present.30 The prominence of the Tudor period in broader narratives of Britishness, and its iconic visual canon, make it a potent choice for Bae’s exploration of British identity. Moreover, Elizabeth I’s status as the most famous – and most portrayed – woman of that era renders her inclusion in Bae’s series almost unavoidable. In Existing in Costume 4 FIG. 8, he explicitly references the Tudor queen, donning a red curly wig and a dress reminiscent of that shown in the three surviving Armada Portraits, painted c.1588 FIG. 9.

Bae selected Elizabeth I and his other subjects on the basis that they allow him to embody the historical power and wealth of British culture, as ‘a child pretends to be a mother by dressing in her clothes and making up with her cosmetics’.31 But in the case of Elizabeth I, his approach also resonates with issues of representation that were current in her own time. As sole-reigning queen, Elizabeth was meant to be the most powerful person in England, but her power was circumscribed by the limited opportunities afforded to women in general. Her very existence posed a challenge to normative gender roles, a fact that influenced her strategies for holding onto power, especially through portraiture.

Seeking models for this unprecedented queen, from the earliest years of her reign Elizabeth’s artists embraced a strategy of androgyny. Images such as the Clopton Portrait FIG. 10 obscure her body shape and conceal her flesh and hair beneath layers of fur and velvet, in an attempt to create the authority and respect commanded by men in the same position.32 Her later portraits distil the female body into an armour-like casing, exemplified by the Armada Portraits. Even Elizabeth’s self-fashioning, as revealed in her speeches, courts androgynous themes.33 Before her coronation she compared herself to the biblical Daniel in his deliverance from the lion’s den, and on the eve of the Spanish Armada set herself between sexes: ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too’.34

It is, then, a curious twist of history that this very same tension – between simplified symbol and irreducible individual – haunts the image embraced by Bae as a seemingly uncomplicated manifestation of the Western tradition. Indeed, Bae is not the first contemporary artist to link the issue of androgyny with the figure of Elizabeth I. The ambiguity inherent in her gender presentation has also been a focus for many practitioners in recent decades. Examples include the casting of Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth in Sally Potter’s 1992 film of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), and the non-binary performer and writer Christopher Green’s procession from the Queen’s House at the Royal Museums Greenwich to the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2019, in which they wore a replica of the Armada Portrait dress.35 Far from anachronistic, these performances are a legacy of the issues faced by Elizabeth during her reign.36 Bae further mobilises them to explore issues of ‘Otherness’ and alienation as they map on to race and cultural stereotypes in the present day. But, as in The Singh Twins’ use of Elizabeth’s image, the sheer aesthetic pleasure of his sumptuous visual creations simultaneously embraces and celebrates the tradition that he interrogates.


Re-enlivening Elizabeth

In the final work under discussion, Mat Collishaw’s Mask of Youth FIG. 11, the reliability of visual perception and its relationship to artistic representation is brought to the fore. Collishaw is known for his technological conjuring, and he often embraces optical illusion, robotics and moving media to explore the interactions between art and reality. Mask of Youth was a commission for the Queen’s House, London: it was intended as a response to the version of the Armada Portrait in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, London FIG. 12.

Painted in 1588 to celebrate the defeat of a Spanish invasion, the Armada Portraits are famous for their mask-like representation of the heirless fifty-five-year-old queen. The ‘mask of youth’ technique was a common feature of Elizabeth’s later portraits: it was part of an attempt to maintain political control in the face of a looming succession crisis. In the intervening centuries, the National Maritime Museum version has undergone several periods of restoration: for example, the windows behind Elizabeth, which show the defeat of the Armada, were repainted by a seventeenth-century artist. During the most recent restoration, this later overpainting was retained, adding further layers of complexity to the issue of ‘accuracy’ in the portrait’s representation of the Tudor monarch.

The gulf between the vision of Elizabeth in this portrait and the reality of her appearance in the late 1580s served as the jumping-off point for Collishaw’s exploration of artifice and reality. He researched Elizabeth’s actual appearance at the age of fifty-five, drawing on surviving images, the more objective accounts of foreign ambassadors, historical information, such as her scarring bout of smallpox in 1562, and the tomb effigy at Westminster Abbey, which may have been based on a death mask. He used this information to create an uncannily veristic animatronic mask of Elizabeth’s face FIG. 13, which was mounted on a one-way surveillance mirror with its mechanics exposed. The silicone mask moved its eyes, blinked and turned from side to side to look around the room. It could open its mouth, waggle its tongue and grind its teeth. The mask was positioned opposite the Armada Portrait in the appropriately named Queen’s Presence Chamber, and could be viewed from the front, standing between the two representations of Elizabeth, as well as from the back, revealing the robotics behind the eerie illusion FIG. 14.

The Mask of Youth combined technology and art with meticulous research and animatronics to create a seemingly ‘realistic’ picture of the long-dead queen. The mask’s moving face and lifelike silicone skin recall the appearance of humanoid robots in science fiction and anticipate the debates about AI technology that have achieved greater prominence in the years since the commission. However, the problem of how to distinguish between an artist’s automaton and a being with agency was also familiar to Elizabeth and her contemporaries.37 Just a few decades earlier, at the height of the Protestant Reformation instigated by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, commissioners in charge of dissolving the Abbey of Boxley in Kent had discovered a surprisingly similar mechanism in a sculpture of Christ, known as the Rood of Grace:

I found in the Image of the Rood called the Rood of Grace […] certain engines and old wire, with old rotten sticks in the back of the same, that did cause the eyes of the same to move and stare in the head thereof like unto a lively thing; and also the nether lip in like wise to move as though it should speak.38

The commissioners interpreted this statue as an example of religious fraud, believing that its mechanism had been used by monks to convince unsuspecting pilgrims that the statue was in some way miraculous, animated by God himself. The Rood developed a durable afterlife in prose and poetry that satirised the credulity of Catholic worshippers and was still being discussed in Elizabeth’s reign:

He was made to juggle
His eyes would goggle
He would bend his brows and frown
With his head he would nod
Like a proper young God
His chaps [jaw] would go up and down.39

Clearly no contemporary viewer of Collishaw’s Mask of Youth would mistake it for Elizabeth I herself, but its uncanny plausibility courts the same theoretical issues explored in Protestant debates about the dangers of idolatry. The Boxley Rood troubled reformers because it raised the question of how far appearances can be trusted, an issue that has occupied Western philosophers and artists ever since Plato banished deceptive artisans from his ideal city in the fourth century BCE.40 In seeking to ‘get behind’ Elizabeth’s symbolic representation and into that other layer of her existence – the ‘real’ historical woman – Collishaw was seemingly inspired by the same contradictory aspects of Elizabeth’s identity that stirred the other artists discussed in this article. But no matter how historically accurate, the work’s exposed armature and wires remind us that this, too, is just another fiction of representation, as artificial as the politically prudent mask of youth employed by Elizabeth’s own artists.



The artists discussed here work various transformations of Elizabeth I’s image, playing with its fame and cultural significance to offer contemporary commentaries. In strictly historical terms, some of their implications are open to query. Elizabeth, for all her enthusiasm for international trade, would have been incapable of envisaging the British Empire as it developed in later centuries. In addition, although her image can now symbolise the entirety of the English political state, in her own time her body constituted an equally contested and scrutinised space, merging with a symbolic identity that was often beyond her control. We might even wonder whether Collishaw’s Mask of Youth, by positing access to the ‘real’ Elizabeth (albeit only to undermine it again), draws on an exclusively modern conception of subjectivity: the framework of a ‘public’ versus a ‘private’ self that she and her contemporaries would have been incapable of recognising.41 However, to quibble over such issues would be to miss the point. These artists reinscribe Elizabeth I in her many possible futures, not to reveal her as she was, but to show that actions and images have consequences.

For The Singh Twins, her reign is an origin point for ongoing problems associated with exploitation and colonial oppression, as reflected in the exotic trappings of her sumptuous portraits, but also for more positive legacies, such as multiculturalism and Indo-British artistic exchange. For Bae, Elizabeth represents an icon of Britishness through which he can explore his own experiences of alienation and ‘Otherness’, disrupting the viewer’s expectations of the Western portrait tradition, and troubling binary categories in the realms of gender and race. For Collishaw, Elizabeth’s portrait distils ever-present artistic issues: the line between artifice and reality, and the role of the artist in helping, or hindering, viewers when navigating that ambiguity.

The fact that Elizabeth I provides the touchpaper for all of these explorations reflects the complexity and contradiction of her reign and its representations. Within her own lifetime her image proved to be highly malleable, her dual nature as both human woman and symbolic figurehead driving many of the period’s aesthetic developments. The way that her portraiture registered such a duality underpins the work of the contemporary artists discussed here. But in each case, the historical works of art that have directly or indirectly inspired them also introduce subtle resistance, complicating and even subverting their political and aesthetic claims. Their artistic responses speak to the ongoing relevance of Tudor art for exploring Britain’s mixed heritage in complex and stimulating ways.



I would like to thank the artists, Amrit and Rabindra Singh, Chan Hyo-Bae and Mat Collishaw for engaging with my questions, over email and in person at the ‘Tudors Now!’ event series held at the Paul Mellon Centre, London, in 2023. Special thanks are due to Helen Hackett, for introducing me to some of the works discussed, and Oscar Nearly for his insightful comments on an earlier draft. I am especially grateful to the anonymous reviewer for their helpful ideas and suggestions.


About the author

Christina Faraday

is a Research Fellow in History of Art at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. As a BBC New Generation Thinker, she contributes regularly to popular media, including BBC Radio 3 and Apollo. She is the author of Tudor Liveliness: Vivid Art in Post-Reformation England (2023) and hosts the Berger Prize podcast British Art Matters for the Walpole Society, where she is a trustee.


  • See, for example, Linder’s Bower of Bliss (2018), which draws on Elizabeth I’s iconography to explore the historical relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, Natasja Kensmil’s Frozen Queen, a suite of paintings of Elizabeth I from 2009, Grayson Perry’s Posh Art (1992) and Stephen Farthing’s She Could But Does Not (1993–95). For a broader exploration of Tudor references in contemporary art, see C.J. Faraday: The Story of Tudor Art (working title; forthcoming 2025). footnote 1
  • Elizabeth I, quoted from her Armada Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, 9th August 1588, in Elizabeth I: Collected Works, eds. L.S. Marcus, J. Mueller and M.B. Rose, Chicago and London 2000, pp.325–26. The classic accounts of Elizabeth’s portraiture are R. Strong: Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, London 1987; A. Belsey and C. Belsey: ‘Icons of divinity: portraits of Elizabeth I’, in L. Gent and N. Llewellyn, eds: Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture, c.1540–1660, London 1990, pp.11–35, esp. pp.31–33; and L. Montrose: ‘Idols of the queen: policy, gender, and the picturing of Elizabeth I’, Representations 68 (1999), pp.108–61, footnote 2
  • Strong, op. cit. (note 2), pp.147–48. footnote 3
  • S. Frye: Elizabeth I: The Competition for Representation, Oxford 1993, See also E. Goldring and E. Rutherford: ‘A newly discovered cabinet miniature by Nicholas Hilliard’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE 166, pp.340–47. footnote 4
  • See H. Bertens: The Idea of the Postmodern: A History, London 1994, esp. pp.55–60 and 65–67; I. Hassan: ‘Beyond postmodernism: toward an aesthetic of trust’ in K. Stierstorfer, ed.: Beyond Postmodernism: Reassessments in Literature, Theory, and Culture, Berlin and New York 2003, pp.199–212. footnote 5
  • C. Jencks: The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, New York 1984, p.54; see also C. Jencks: Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays, New York 1980, p.32. Similar discussions shaped some of the artists considered here: as recently as the late 1980s, university art tutors criticised The Singh Twins for their interest in ‘old, backward and outdated’ Mughal miniature paintings, The Singh Twins, quoted from S.K. Malhotra: ‘The Singh Twins’, Platform (Nov–Dec 2013), available at, accessed 7th May 2024. footnote 6
  • L. Hutcheon: ‘The politics of postmodernism: parody and history’, Cultural Critique 5 (Winter 1986/87), pp.179–207, footnote 7
  • The Singh Twins: ‘Why we describe our artwork as “PAST-MODERN”’,, available at, accessed 6th May 2024. footnote 8
  • These features have been identified in several accounts of culture after or since postmodernism, see D. Rudrum and N. Stavris, eds: Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century, New York 2015, including Billy Childish and Charles Thomson’s ‘Remodernism’, pp.101–10; Raoul Eshelman’s ‘Performatism’, pp.111–12; Alan Kirby’s ‘Digimodernism’, pp.297–98; and especially Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker’s ‘Metamodernism’, pp.309–10 and 319. On authenticity and the ‘spectre’ of postmodernism, see J. Toth and N. Brooks: ‘Introduction: a wake and renewed?’, in idem: The Mourning After: Attending the Wake of Postmodernism, Amsterdam 2007, pp.1–9. footnote 9
  • J. Saltz: ‘Sincerity and irony hug it out’, New York (27th May 2010), available at, accessed 7th May 2024. footnote 10
  • Natasja Kensmil’s portraits explicitly set out to explore Elizabeth’s ‘psyche’: ‘full of love, pride and glory, but also full of terror, disgust, incomprehension, loss and violence. The queen encapsulates a tragedy’. Natasja Kensmil, quoted from ‘Earthly and unearthly powers: Natasja Kensmil in conversation with Michael Stevenson’, in N. Kensmil: exh. cat. Frozen Queen, Cape Town (Stevenson) 2010, pp.3–5 at p.3. footnote 11
  • A. Nagel: Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, London 2012, esp. pp.9–10 and 21. A.K. Powell: Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum, Brooklyn 2012, performs the same operation in reverse, reading historical works in ways that throw open the displacements of their later biographies. footnote 12
  • See The Singh Twins, op. cit. (note 8). footnote 13
  • S. Mathur: ‘Diasporic body double: the art of The Singh Twins’, Art Journal 65, no.2 (2006), pp.34–57, at p.38, footnote 14
  • S. Žižek: ‘Beyond discourse-analysis’, in E. Laclau, ed.: New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, New York 1990, pp.249–60, at p.259. footnote 15
  • S. Hartman: ‘Venus in two acts’, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no.2 (2008), pp.1–14, esp. p.14, footnote 16
  • Sensibility being the way our mind receives impressions of things in the world, Žižek, op. cit. (note 15), pp.259–60; see also R.R. Clewis: ‘The feeling of enthusiasm’, in K. Sorensen and D. Williamson, eds: Kant and the Faculty of Feeling, Cambridge 2018, pp.184–207 at p.188. footnote 17
  • O. Butler: Kindred, Boston 1979, discussed in Hartman, op. cit. (note 16), esp. p.14. footnote 18
  • L. Gerber and M. Ruby: ‘Fashion statement’, Alternatives: Global, Local Political 43 (2018), pp.72–79, at pp.73 and 76. footnote 19
  • K. Meghani: exh. cat. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875–6, Bradford (Cartwright Hall), Leicester (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery), Edinburgh (Queen’s Gallery) and London (Queen’s Gallery) 2017–18. footnote 20
  • The Singh Twins, in email communication with the present author, 20th June 2023. footnote 21
  • See J.L. Austin: How to Do Things with Words, Oxford 1975, esp. pp.5–8, in which utterances are ‘performative’ if they constitute the ‘doing of an action’, which might take the form of a declaration, a command, a contract, or a promise. Judith Butler defines gender, along with other aspects of identity, as an act, unrelated to ‘truths’ about the body, and ‘performative’ in the sense that it creates the social reality that it purports simply to express, see J. Butler: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York 1999, esp. pp.171–80; and idem: ‘Performative acts and gender constitution: an essay in phenomenology and feminist theory’, in S.-E. Case, ed.: Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, Baltimore 1990, p.270. Elsewhere, Butler locates the performative utterance’s authority in its citational quality, see J. Butler: Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, New York 1993, p.xxi. footnote 22
  • B. Hinderliter: ‘The multiple worlds of Cindy Sherman’s history portraits’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria 44 (2014), available at, accessed 8th May 2024. footnote 23
  • Chan-Hyo Bae, quoted from artist statement for Witch Hunting Project (2013–16), Photo Edition Berlin, available at, accessed 6th May 2024. footnote 24
  • Chan-Hyo Bae, quoted from artist statement for Fairy Tales (2008–10), Photo Edition Berlin, available at, accessed 6th May 2024. footnote 25
  • K. Mercer: Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, London 2013, pp.179–90, see also p.226, footnote 26
  • See E.A. Kaplan: Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, London 2012, esp. chapter 1. footnote 27
  • See, for example, S. Connor: ‘Postmodernism grown old’, in M.K. Popova and V.V. Strukov, eds: Cul’tura ‘Post’: At the Crossroads of Cultures and Civilisations, Voronezh 2005, pp.55–72. footnote 28
  • See E. Levinas: Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Dordrecht 1991, esp. pp.50–52, 75–77, 79–81 and 183; and S. Hand, ed.: The Levinas Reader, Oxford 1989, p.5. footnote 29
  • As discussed in E. Said: Orientalism, New York 1979, esp. pp.137–38, 206–07 and 219–20, and exemplified in the work of nineteenth-century painters, for example, Jean-Léon Gérôme and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. See also archives of the artist, London, unpublished text by Mayako Murai: ‘Believing is seeing: Chan-Hyo Bae’s “Witch Hunting Project”’; and Mayako Murai: ‘Costume and fairy tales’, Studies in Costume & Performance 7, no.2 (2022), pp.179–182 esp. p.180, footnote 30
  • Chan-Hyo Bae, quoted from artist statement for Existing in Costume (2006–07), Photo Edition Berlin, available at, accessed 6th May 2024. footnote 31
  • Frye, op. cit. (note 4), pp.22–55. footnote 32
  • See L. Marcus: ‘Shakespeare’s comic heroines, Elizabeth I, and the political uses of androgyny’, in M.B. Rose, ed.: Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, Syracuse NY 1986, pp.135–53. footnote 33
  • See M. Perry: The Word of a Prince: A Life of Elizabeth I from Contemporary Documents, Woodbridge 1990, p.93; and Elizabeth I, op. cit. (note 2). footnote 34
  • See ‘Elizabeth I’,, available at, accessed 6th May 2024. footnote 35
  • See C. Levin: The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power, Philadelphia 2013, esp. pp.121–48; and Frye, op. cit. (note 4), pp.22–55. footnote 36
  • See C.J. Faraday: Tudor Liveliness: Vivid Art in Post-Reformation England, London 2023, esp. chapter 2. footnote 37
  • Letter CCCXX in H. Ellis, ed.: Original Letters Illustrative of English History, London 1846, III, pp.168–69. footnote 38
  • W. Gray: ‘A fantasy of idolatry’, in J. Foxe: Actes and Monuments, London 1563, p.655 (mispaginated as p.590). footnote 39
  • Plato: Republic, Book X. footnote 40
  • P. Burke: ‘Individuality and biography in the renaissance’, The European Legacy 2 (1997), pp.1,372–382,; see also C.J. Faraday: ‘“it seemeth to be the thing itsefe”: directness and intimacy in Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait miniatures’, Études Épistémè 36 (2019), footnote 41

See also

Simeon Barclay: England’s Lost Camelot
Simeon Barclay: England’s Lost Camelot

Simeon Barclay: England’s Lost Camelot

29.09.2021 • Reviews / Exhibition

Forests of the mind: spectres of deforestation in contemporary English aesthetics
Forests of the mind: spectres of deforestation in contemporary English aesthetics

Forests of the mind: spectres of deforestation in contemporary English aesthetics

by Laura Ouillon