When it came to the end of my MA in Art History last September I was struck by that all-too-familiar feeling of uncertainty. The looming question: ‘what now?’. After spending some time working on a PhD proposal whilst also feverishly job-hunting, I was hugely relieved when I spotted a curatorial internship opportunity with the 16th century collection at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Given my interests in 16th-century English art, and Elizabethan portraiture in particular, the internship seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to gain some much needed curatorial experience. During the surprisingly enjoyable interview process I was given a tour of the Heinz Archive, which was followed by a fairly standard panel interview and an image test. Shortly after I was offered the internship, and now, six months later, I can say that it was a hugely enjoyable, informative and inspiring experience. Over the course of the internship it was my role to support the 16th-century collection curators with the development of their upcoming major show, Elizabeth I and Her People.
This meant that I had a huge variety range of tasks to do, enabling me to gain experience of many different aspects of the planning and development of a large exhibition. However, most of my time was initially spent researching various portraits and object loans for the exhibition. The NPG is one of the premier centres for research into portraiture in the country; the curators attached to each collection (16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, contemporary and photography) carry out research into portraits that come to the gallery as exhibition loans, deal with enquiries from other galleries, collections and members of the public, as well as researching and developing the collection for which they are responsible. At the heart of the institution is the Heinz Archive, which is open to the public via appointment, and which houses a huge number of images, documents and tomes that anyone interested in portraiture would be thrilled to work with. One of the most useful resources is the collection of ‘sitter boxes’. These large files contain images of all known and supposed portraits of numerous sitters, together with correspondence relating to the whereabouts of various portraits. They are extremely useful as a source of comparison when trying to decide whether a portrait is of a particular person. As curatorial intern I was able to make full use of these resources, which helped me to develop my own skills and interest in 16th-century British portraiture.
One of the most intriguing of the research tasks I was given involved that humble household pet, the guinea pig. During the planning of the exhibition a portrait had come to light that probably contains the earliest known depiction of a guinea pig in English, perhaps even European, art. The portrait was discovered by one of the exhibition curators in a private collection and it depicts three Elizabethan children, whose identities are unknown. There is a clear family resemblance, however, and their high social standing is clearly indicated by their fine clothes. Although the identities of the children are tantalising, it is the animals in the portrait which are most interesting. One of the boys holds a small bird, possibly a finch, which was a popular childhood pet in Elizabethan England. It is in the arms of the girl at the centre of the portrait, however, that the groundbreaking rodent nestles. This work may be unique amongst English 16th-century portraits in its inclusion of this familiar animal and I was tasked with researching the lives of guinea pigs in 16th-century England. Guinea pigs were imported into the Spanish Netherlands on ships from the New World and it is likely that they were transported to England from here. Since the discovery of 16th-century guinea pig remains at Hill Hall in Essex it had been assumed that these animals were kept as pets only by the wealthy. In 2007, however, a guinea pig skeleton was unearthed at an excavation of a ‘middle class’ home in Mons, Belgium, dated around the end of the 16th century. This suggests that guinea pigs may have been kept as pets by a wider range of social groups. It is likely that, in the context of this portrait, the guinea pig acts as a status symbol, given its exotic provenance. Aristocratic children were also depicted with small animals to illustrate their natural dominance. The portrait has already attracted media attention, and you can see the guinea pig in all its glory below and read more here.
Following on from my introduction to the 16th-century guinea pig, I was tasked with some good old fashioned art history detective work – to try to establish the identity of an Elizabethan warrior whose portrait was to be loaned to the exhibition from a private collection. The sitter, known as Vaughan of Tretower, cuts a striking figure with his huge reddish beard and intricate Italian armour and weaponry. In Dynasties, an exhibition catalogue from a few years back (Tate, 1995), the suggestion was made that the sitter might be one Cuthbert Vaughan, a member of an influential Welsh gentry family. Using this as a start point, I used the sitter boxes in the Heinz Archive to search for other portraits of sitters by that name. By all accounts, Cuthbert was a quarrelsome character. He had spent time in prison during the reign of Mary I, and whilst serving Elizabeth as a military leader he often wrote to William Cecil, one of the queen’s chief councillors, to complain that he had not been adequately rewarded for his years spent on campaign. The inscription around the portrait frame, which states that those who through ‘bludy swets’ defend the realm deserve to gain, seems to fit in with this identification.
Although most of my research tasks, like those mentioned above, related to loans to the Elizabeth exhibition, I also had the opportunity to assist with enquiries from a couple of other galleries. I helped identify a mystery countess in a hugely elaborate costume as Catherine Carey, a close friend of the queen. I also hunted through pages and pages of portraits of Sir Francis Drake in the Heinz Archive to decide whether a newly rediscovered portrait of an armoured Elizabethan commander was a good likeness of the famous explorer and buccaneer. In addition, I was able to further hone my research skills by attending a workshop on using online resources and databases, a lecture on Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘pregnancy portraits’ at the very grand Royal Society of Antiquaries, and a number of talks at the NPG’s lecture theatre.
As the opening of the exhibition crept ever closer, loans research gave way to more practical considerations and I became more involved with the design and interpretation aspects of the exhibition. One of the major themes of the show, as the title implies, is that it focuses not only on the queen and her aristocratic courtiers, as so often happens with portraiture exhibitions of this kind, but also gives space to members of the Elizabethan gentry, judiciary, clergy and merchant classes, as well as ordinary people. Thus, in an innovative move that parallels developments in collection display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, among others, the portraits in this exhibition will be hung in themed areas, surrounded by other objects that will help to evoke what life was like for different social groups in Elizabethan society. Each area of the exhibition will be focused on a different social group. A similar technique was used at the impressive show The Lost Prince (NPG, 2012/13).
My role in all of this was to compile a dossier on Elizabethan style (something like a 16th-century design magazine) for the gallery design team to use as a source of inspiration when designing and decorating various areas of the exhibition space. The task was a highly enjoyable one and, surrounded by piles of glossy tomes on 16th-century decoration, I gained a greater understanding of Elizabethan and Jacobean design principles and visual culture. Visitors to the exhibition will be taken on a journey through the world of the nobility and gentry, glistening with fine jewellery, decadent silverware and elaborate costume, and heavy with intricate, classically-inspired wall-hangings and architecture, through into the world of the aspirational ‘middling sort’, where the more reserved tastes of merchants and judges is reflected in more traditional timber-framed architecture and worldly motifs. Some of the fascinating objects from the exhibition include a clear class tankard, which William Cecil, Lord Burghley, commissioned to try to promote glass making in England, a charming coin purse in the shape of a frog and the will of a poor woman, which highlights the desperate poverty in which many Elizabethans lived. All of this and more will be displayed in spaces themed around the original owners of such objects.
The exhibition spaces will also be interactive, with ‘windows’ to allow visitors to gaze between worlds, and a virtual bookshelf, where some of the most famous, and some lesser-known, Elizabethan texts can be perused. As part of the internship I helped to develop a shortlist of Elizabethan texts, ranging from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, and John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, to pamphlets by notorious author and playwright Robert Greene on “Coney-catching” (a name used for thievery through trickery). Thinking about the democratisation of literature in the Elizabethan period, I also selected several fascinating Elizabethan broadsides, full of tales about monstrous births, deadly sea creatures and the exploits of famous figures. After selecting several texts I used online archives, including EEBO (Early English Books Online), the British Library and the Huntington Library to find copies with impressive engravings. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to browse through pages of these texts and get a feel for the literary life of Elizabethan England.
In my opinion, no exhibition is really complete without a glossy catalogue to go with it. The catalogue not only serves as a guide to the exhibition, granting the curators a space to go into greater depth about exhibition themes and loan items, it also serves as a souvenir of the show. Its pages should serve as a reminder of the spectacle of the exhibition space itself. The NPG has produced several stunning catalogues recently, and the catalogue accompanying the Elizabeth exhibition is no exception. Packed with high quality images of many of the portraits and objects in the exhibition, accompanied by essays about Elizabeth I and Elizabethan society, the catalogue should serve as a great introduction to Elizabethan England as well as providing a comprehensive account of the show itself. Although I was unfortunately too late on the scene to be able to contribute any catalogue entries, I was pleased to be involved in several rather frantic proofreading and editing sessions. Of course, although all of the work I did at the NPG was interesting, the internship was made really enjoyable thanks to the guidance and assistance of the gallery staff I was working with. I found the curatorial team at the gallery to be really welcoming and helpful, and I certainly seized every chance to ask as many questions as I could think up about my own research, the gallery and those much-desired career pointers. Having completed the internship I now feel that I’m much better placed to negotiate the rough road to building a career in the arts. I’m also left with the sense that, through the work outlined above and many other tasks, I contributed actively to the development of the Elizabeth exhibition. It was also nice to see among the loans list the extraordinary and little-known Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the ambassador of the Barbary States to Elizabeth I’s court, which usually resides here at Birmingham in the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections.
I really recommend that you follow the Ambassador down to London and see him alongside other Elizabethan gems, including the huge and impressive Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which I wrote about for my MA dissertation. The inclusion of this mysterious portrait, which shows the queen in procession surrounded by many of the most powerful figures of her later reign, provided a personal link between myself and the show, which I am very proud to have played a part in.
Elizabeth I & Her People is on at the NPG until 5th January 2014. Admission: £13.50 full price, £11.50 for students. More information and bookings is available here.