There are some royal portraits that just take your breath away. The ‘Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth I at the Queen’s House in Greenwich is one of them. Thomas Sully’s ‘Queen Victoria’ at the Wallace Collection is another, and let’s not forget ‘Queen Elizabeth II, Lightness of Being’ by Chris Levine. Then another comes along which makes the pace quicken and quiver with excitement: ‘The Rainbow Portrait’. It’s on loan from Hatfield House to Hampton Court Palace for a short term, and you won’t want to miss this. What’s even more exciting is it sits next to a piece of cloth thought to be the only surviving item of clothing that belonged to Elizabeth I: the Lost Dress or Bacton Altar Cloth.
The embroidered cloth was hanging in a Herefordshire church in the village of Bacton where it was preserved for centuries. It is now in the hot hands of the Historic Royal Palaces where it has been subject to a three year, 1000-hour conservation, and it is thought that the spectacular fragment belongs to the dress which Elizabeth I is wearing in the Rainbow Portrait.
So how did The Lost Dress end up in Herefordshire? Elizabeth’s faithful servant was a Blanche Parry who was born and raised in Bacton. She would eventually become Elizabeth’s Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber. Blanche was by Elizabeth’s side when she was an infant and nursed her through smallpox. In return, Parry received many gifts from the Queen. Although Elizabeth was in the habit of giving Parry her old clothes, it is thought that the embroidered panel was sent to Bacton after Parry’s death in her memory, either by the Queen or by one of her ladies-in-waiting.
The parish always knew the dress had great significance, and it hung on the church wall where it lived for centuries. In 2016, Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri Lynn examined the dress, confirming that this was most likely the piece of a skirt belonging to a dress from the wardrobe of Elizabeth I.
The Bacton Altar Cloth isn’t just any old piece of fabric. It is thought that the dress would have taken around 600 hours of embroidery. It’s made of silver chamblet silk using gold and silver thread. It contains Indian indigo and a Mexican red dye, both expensive colours. The faded pattern is alive with butterflies, bees, peacocks and plants. The pattern-cutting points to haute couture of the most regal kind. And we know Elizabeth liked to keep the best of the best for herself, ticking off her subjects if they tried to one-upmanship her on the fashion front.
Lynn explains how all of Elizabeth’s clothing went up in smoke during the Great Fire of London. Of some 2000 personal items, only a few survive including some gloves and a ring containing a portrait of her mother, Anne Boleyn. This means the Lost Dress is probably the only surviving item of clothing belonging to the Virgin Queen.
Elizabeth I’s dress, lost and found, has been reunited with one of her most breathtaking portraits, the Rainbow Portrait. It’s on loan from Hatfield House and now sits above the Bacton Altar Cloth, in all its Gloriana glory. Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Elizabeth wears a striking dress which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lost Dress. The portrait was commissioned in 1602 by the Queen’s spymaster, Robert Cecil, and it lives in the house where Elizabeth spent her childhood under house arrest during the reign of her sister Mary I.
The portrait reeks of symbolism with pearls symbolising peace, a snake for wisdom and a heart for mercy. Surrealist eyes and ears inhabit the robe, meant to convey that the monarch (and Cecil by default) was all-seeing and all-knowing. A grey “hosepipe” would have once been in the colours of the rainbow, complemented by a quote, “Non sine sole iris” (no rainbow without sun).
“We’re thrilled to finally be putting this exquisite object on display at Hampton Court Palace, Elizabeth’s former home.,” says Lynn. “The villagers of Bacton, past and present, have taken care to ensure the survival of this wonderful object and we are delighted to have played our part in preserving it for future generations.”
You can marvel at The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I from 12 October 2019 to 23 February 2020, before it heads off for a “rest” in the palace’s storage rooms. If you happen to be in Bacton, you can pop into St Faith’s Church where you will see a photographic replica of the Bacton Altar Cloth.
Feature Image: Historic Royal Palaces, David Jensen
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