A glimpse into our British Portraits Gallery

A glimpse into our British Portraits Gallery

Our outstanding British Portraits collection is located on the ground floor of Compton Verney House, between the Northern European Gallery and Women’s Library. Adorned with incredible portraits that span the breadth of British history, it is exclusively available to our members and day ticket holders every Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.

Today, we will allow you a glimpse into the gallery by revealing two incredible portraits of important women in British history; Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Mrs. George Baldwin (Jane Maltass, 1763–1839).

Hung above the majestic fireplace in the gallery and painted over 400 years ago is the exquisite portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (c.1590) which is mysterious for more reasons than one.

Queen Elizabeth I © Compton Verney

Created by an unknown artist, the painter has chosen to portray her as an ethereal, ageless figure of the nation using a selection of symbols for the viewer to discover and ‘read’. For example, she wears a wired veil, a very popular fashion statement at the time, but it creates the shape of wings and subtly fades downwards. She wears pearls and holds and ostrich feather fan; both symbols of purity. On her bodice is a jewel in the form of a moon, evoking Diana, goddess of the hunt and of chastity. Finally, her open-worked crown containing the great central diamond known as the ‘Mirror of Portugal’, symbolises her sovereignty.

This historic portrait helps us understand a lot about Elizabeth’s reign. Although she received many proposals of marriage, she remained single and was known as the ‘Virgin Queen’. Many portraits were produced of Elizabeth I and owning and displaying a portrait such as this would have been a way to publicly demonstrate loyalty to the Queen.

Hung next to this Tudor masterpiece is a painting made nearly 200 years later that provides an intimate insight into the studio of one of Britain’s foremost artists of the 18th century, the portrait of ‘Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92).

Reynolds, Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress © Compton Verney

Reynolds is remembered in history as a key artist of the 18th century, founder of the Royal Academy of Arts and the second-ever artist to be knighted. His portraits adorn the walls of important galleries in the UK including The National Portrait Gallery. This portrait of Mrs Baldwin in our British Portraits collection is intriguing, charming and heart-warming.

Jane Baldwin (1763-1839) was born in Turkey, the daughter of a Yorkshire merchant and wife to George Baldwin, a wealthy merchant and diplomat stationed at Alexandria in Egypt. Jane was much admired for her beauty and intelligence, and became an object of fascination in Georgian society. She was considered alluring and exotic as shown by her eastern style of dress, called ‘turquerie’. She is known to have worn the costume in this portrait several times, including at a ball in London given by King George III.

Interestingly, Reynolds was not commissioned to paint this portrait, rather, he was captivated by Jane and asked if she would sit for him. If you are wondering what she looking at, Jane was bored by the sittings and read a book, which Reynolds changed into an ancient coin. Touchingly, he never sold the painting but kept it at his studio for the rest of his life, bequeathing it to his niece when he died.

These are just two of the fascinating historical portraits in our gallery, you can come and view the whole collection when you buy a membership or day ticket online. Plan your visit now.