Keeping up with the Elizabethans, why historic airbrushing was a thing

By Hannah Silverman

What does Queen Elizabeth I have in common with Kim Kardashian, besides bling the size of a small empire? Anyone?

They’ve both been subjected to allegations of image manipulation. But airbrushing and Photoshop wasn’t around in the 16th century, you say. True, but what artists lacked in keyboards they made up for with paintbrushes – and the viewing public was none the wiser.

You see the art of ‘airbrushing’ is no more prevalent among the Hollywood elite today than it was for historic royalty who’s pursuit of perfection, PR and propaganda was equally as critical in shaping status.

I chatted to the experts at Royal Historic Palaces and the National Portrait Gallery to find out why artistic nip-tucking is not a new age scandal and how artists got away with it for so long.

Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown artist, c. early 17th century with 18th century overpainting. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Elizabeth I, like many other monarchs, had an image to uphold and there’s nothing like a bit of paint to cover up a sweet tooth. In an age before Colgate and Clinique, observers at the time say her teeth were decaying and her face scarred, but there are very few portraits that offer even a glimpse of this unrepresented Queen. Instead, portraits portray her with an ice cream complexion, a cinch in waist, taut facial features and perfectly groomed auburn hair. She was the perfect cover girl and always ready for her close up, as Elizabethan artists would have you believe.

But Hampton Court Palace State Apartment Warder, Ian Franklin, says this wasn’t the case. He explains since ancient times leaders, monarchs and celebrities have sought to “manipulate and ‘improve’ their image”. Elizabeth I was no exception.

“Elizabeth I – learning from her father Henry VIII, knew how to control her official image, and for most of her reign artists had to conform to an accepted – authorised – likeness of the Queen, which as she grew older differed more and more from reality,” he says.

“The Monarchy certainly wanted to be shown as they wanted to be seen, and their image was very much a part of their whole public relations policy.”

As photography wasn’t invented, paparazzi snaps were obviously not available and sketching anything you would see on E! News today would have been a punishable offence. That means insights into the actual physical appearances of some of history’s most well known figures is, in some cases, inconclusive. With pox, plague, disease and a distinct lack of hygiene very common place at court and beyond, it’s not surprising the portraits we recognise so easily today are only a snapshot of the royals we think we know.

Elizabeth I associated with Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1575. She was aged 42. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Charlotte Bolland, Project Curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s Making Art in Tudor Britain which is presented in its new exhibition The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, says Elizabeth I only sat for her portrait on a few occasions. This suggests her image within those artworks has been fixed in time while her ailments and perceived flaws remain cleverly disguised.

Elizabeth I suffered a near-fatal bout of smallpox in 1562 that would very likely have scarred her skin and yet her face appears almost porcelain smooth in many of her most famous portraits,” she says.

“The quality of the Queen’s portraits was considered to be a matter of great importance, and attempts were made to regulate their production in order to stop ‘debased images’ being made.”

Of course, Elizabeth I wasn’t the only royal known to request some Tudor-style airbrushing. Hans Holbein famously painted a portrait of Anne of Cleves to impress Henry VIII so he would become so enamoured by her beauty he would take her as his wife. However, the real-life Anne showed little resemblance and the King was said to have been so repulsed by his new bride their marriage was never consummated.

Art was also used to dictate power and status, Bolland says. During the 16th century, Henry VIII knew he needed to promote his authority, particularly during his controversial break from Rome, so he turned to portraiture to do so.

“Artists often tried to enhance a monarch’s stature – the famous full-length portrait of Henry VIII in the Whitehall mural created an enduring image of how a monarch’s physical presence should be impressed upon the viewer,” she says.

Equally, as Franklin observes, Henry VIII himself wouldn’t have wanted to be seen as an ageing, bloated man who could hardly walk in his latter years. Holbein’s robust representation continues to be used and today is one of the most recognisable representations of one of the world’s most iconic rulers.

Henry VIII, Studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1540-1550. He was aged between 49 and 59. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Today, however, we chastise publishers for printing magazine covers of perfectly chiselled celebrities because these lucrative images set unrealistic beauty standards. Kim Kardashian is one of the obvious ones, but another day another Photoshopping, airbrushing scandal. It’s a perfectly painless procedure this digital surgery, but it’s effectively suggesting how the subject looks is not good enough. This sets dangerous standards, particularly as technology develops and becomes more accessible. As common and timeless as these human insecurities are, it’s therefore conceivable that these age old pressures would have resonated in the past. Perhaps such feelings of inadequacies were felt by Elizabeth herself some 500 years earlier.

So why is it such a generational scandal if it’s been happening for years, long before the first Vogue was printed and well before the first camera flashed? Perhaps we’re equally as guilty today thanks to the camera filters we use to wash our own happy snaps with. Even in an age of Instragram filtering and digital remastering, you and I create this magic at home while ignorantly perpetuating the myth that we can use art to upgrade ourselves. Beauty today, it seems, is in the iPhone of the beholder.

But today’s public aren’t as forgiving. Franklin says in the past this image manipulation was far more easy to trick the viewer than it is today. With only few images to compare and contrast, the 16th century is a much more difficult era to fully represent how society looked.

“I believe that by manipulating and controlling their public image in the way they did, both Henry VIII and Elizabeth were actively presenting an unreal, idealised image of themselves in a way we can’t get away with by airbrushing photographs today,” he says.

“Besides, photography means we are all bombarded with images of the celebrities of today so we know what they look like, when in the pre-photographic days, painters could manipulate images as required by their patrons or customers.”

William III in triumphal mode, dominating a group of Roman emperors who represent the King’s Catholic enemies, as well as a banquet of the Gods. Note the attractive, muscular physiques. Painting by Antonio Verrio at Hampton Court. Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces.

As portraits were usually conducted in private sittings, who really knows how the muffin top was hidden and if it ever in fact existed. This creates a fine line between reality and fantasy and one that may confuse us today, the way it might confuse researchers in the future.

I asked Franklin, what does this mean for the modern day historian? Will they ever really know the truth about what our icons looked and lived like?

“Unless you are aware of the general history of any given time, it is difficult not to be influenced by images of monarchs that have been created to disguise their true appearance, or accentuate aspects of themselves for their own ends,” he says.

“If however, images are seen in their proper context – as ‘airbrushed’ images of ultra thin models today should be viewed in the future – the nature of the image manipulation should tell historians more rather than less about contemporary social mores.”

Excitingly, today some of these questions can be demythed at the hands of modern technology. Bolland says scientific analysis today allows us to examine the surface of a painting more closely than ever before.

“In the portrait of Edward VI c-radiography revealed changes in the apint layers beneath the surface, with changes to the position of the foot – to make his broad stance more plausible for a nine-year-old boy, and the addition of the royal coat of arms at a late stage in the process,” she says.

“Infrared reflectography also allows us to look beneath the surface – this time time to see the artists preparatory drawing, if it was made in a carbon based media. These techniques give us access to information that the artists never intended the final audience to see but which prove insight into the way in which the painting was made.”

Who knows what time will reveal or conceal, but know that the next magazine cover promoting the latest celebrity photoshop scandal on tomorrow’s magazine cover is actually yesterday’s news.

For more information:

Visit the websites of The National Portrait Gallery, which includes information about its new exhibition ‘The Real Tudors – Kings and Queens Rediscovered’, and Royal Historic Palaces.

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