As an art history scholar, Sara Nair James’ work often takes her to far-flung locales such as Florence and London as she explores the world’s well-known masterpieces.
But in an unexpected turn this summer, the Mary Baldwin professor joined a team that’s investigating the roots of an extremely rare portrait of Queen Elizabeth I discovered relatively close to home.
The work depicts the Virgin Queen at about 60 years old, with deep-set wrinkles and a pursed lip. She wears ornate jewels atop a red wig, on tiny ears, and around her pale, thin neck.
“It’s extraordinary,” James ’69 said. “She’s beautifully painted. Nobody but the master could do it.”
“The master” to whom James referred is Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, an artist of the Tudor court. In 1592, he also painted what is known as the Ditchley portrait of the queen, a full-length masterpiece, which hangs on display in London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Unlike its famous counterpart, the more recently discovered image of Elizabeth had been on casual display inside the gift shop of the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, North Carolina, for more than six decades. Over time, the painting drew only sporadic scrutiny, but this year it was studied by a group based at East Carolina University (ECU), and determined to be one of few surviving original copies of the Ditchley portrait.
Daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth ruled from 1558 until her death at age 69 in 1603. She remains one of the most popular monarchs in British history. During her reign, English drama flourished under the talents of playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. It was also in this period that Roanoke Island was settled off the North Carolina coast and eventually was lost to history.
James learned of the discovery from her brother-in-law who saw a program about it on a local public television station in North Carolina. In July, she joined Larry Tise, a professor of history at ECU, and his team to uncover the secrets of the 16th-century painting.
“We have looked at the Manteo Queen Elizabeth portrait from many angles, but we have needed someone on our team who knows the artists, the studios, the methodologies, the paints, and the social practices of the Elizabethan era,” Tise said. “Fortunately, Dr. James is one of the very few authorities in the history of art on this side of the Atlantic who combines all these realms of knowledge and experience.”
In addition to the work’s tie to Gheeraerts’ studio, what is known is that philanthropist Ruth Coltrane Cannon — with the help of the Garden Club of North Carolina — purchased the portrait and donated it to the Elizabethan Gardens in the 1950s.
What remains a mystery is the portrait’s history before it reemerged in the mid 20th century.
“I’m in this to try to help them sort through the provenance,” James said, adding that she plans to use her research in her popular Art in England course at Mary Baldwin. The class covers the period from 600 to 1600 and is taught with an emphasis on Shakespeare.
So far, her investigation has required e-mails to New York, taken her to several places in North Carolina, and may lead to a trip to London in December, where there will be a gathering of respected scholars who specialize in Tudor art. James ultimately hopes to find where the painting came from and when it was commissioned.
ECU recently returned the painting to the Elizabethan Gardens where — after a brief public display — it has been placed for the near future in secure storage. According to Tise, among the services ECU hopes to provide to the directors and trustees of the Gardens will be a set of recommendations on the conservation, storage, and potential uses of the portrait.
“Many curators, conservators, and curiosity seekers have sought to unlock the mysteries of this very odd portrait of Queen Elizabeth I and, prior to this time, all have essentially failed,” Tise said. “For the first time since the painting emerged at a New York art gallery in 1958, I think we are getting very close to figuring out the origins of this portrait and why it came into being. Dr. James has become a key player in solving this mystery.”