Lute of the Month

Elizabeth I

Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547 - 1619)
Elizabeth I playing the lute c. 1580
Trustee of the Will of the 8th Earl of Berkeley
Vellum stuck onto card 48mm x x39mm
Digital picture kindly supplied by Martin Shepherd

Elizabeth I playing the Lute

This outstanding portrait of Elizabeth I was painted by Hilliard soon after his return from France where he had been in the service of Duc d'Alencon, Elizabeth's suitor. It was probably painted for the Queen's cousin Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon. Interesting when we recall the fact that Dowland's First Book of Songs in 1597 was dedicated to his son George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon, who had helped Dowland and possibly employed him prior to its publication. It may well be the Carey family's interest in the lute that prompted them to commission a portrait of Elizabeth playing. Roy Strong says that no pictures of Tudor monarchs playing a musical instrument had appeared before, but he had obviously forgotten the miniature of Henry VIII playing the harp.

The numerous portraits of Elizabeth were a deeply and consciously political piece of early image manipulation and from about this date take on a more or less iconic quality where the main painterly interest lay in the clothing and trappings of state rather than a life-like representation of the face. This comes from the practice of allowing only occasional sittings to favoured artists with the result being, as it were, licensed out to others for use as a pattern. In fact there is a draft proclamation from 1563 which shows the process of control which was envisaged to create a pattern to be freely used by other artists. We are fortunate that Hilliard was one of the chosen 'pattern makers', and one who ran a workshop dedicated to producing such almost votive images.

It is well known that Elizabeth did in fact play the lute but the processes and circumstances of the commission make it most unlikely that this is taken from an actual occasion. It is more likely to be both an icon suggesting the harmony of the body politic and a reference to the musical interests of the Careys.

The painting has suffered somewhat from the oxidation of the silver used on her dress which originally would have shimmered out against the chair upholstered in black and trimmed with gold.

However for us the lute is also supremely interesting as it is one of so few English pictures of a lute at a time when it was so central to musical life. And, because it is by a major artist, known for his accuracy, dealing with an important sitter and client, we can have some confidence that the interesting differences from the prevailing Italian lutes shown in other paintings of the period do in fact represent actual differences.

First the long neck. Martin Shepherd who sent me the scan, says that he can count 9 frets on the neck, I can't see these on the digital copy but it is confirmed by measuring the neck which gives a total length of 9.6 fret spaces. This is noticeably longer than the surviving renaissance lutes of the period which commonly have 8 frets to the neck. It confirms both Dowland's remark about lutes having their necks lengthened and what Peter Forrester has been surmising about a possible English fashion for lutes with longer necks relative to their bodies which may have been used for divisions in consort music. Peter relates these to the "treble" lute specified in Morley Consort Lessons. He has written about this in the Lute Society Journal XXXIV (1994) in connection with another English painting with a more doubtful connection to Elizabeth, the anonymous English painting of Death and the Maiden now owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford upon Avon. Interestingly, this long neck is also shown in the famous engraving of Gaspar Duiffoprugcar by Woeriot 1562. Here the lute is also a six course and has also nine tied frets although there is room on the neck for at least another two or three frets!

The stringing is also surprising for a six course lute as it clearly shows the second course as single and appears to show octave stringing from the fourth course downwards, much like the later 18th Century Mandoras.

The bridge is somewhat reminiscent of the Gerle bridge but longer and more slender and elegant. However the really interesting thing is that it apears to be put on back to front, according to our normal notion of lute bridges, with the curl of the ends going back towards the bottom of the lute, rather than up towards the neck. This is not unheard of in earlier medieval pictures but seems very unusual for this date and from an artist known for his accuracy. We ought perhaps to re-thinking our assumptions that the earlier pictures were 'wrong'. I can't see it quite clearly enough to be sure, but it appears that the whole structure of the bridge is reversed, with the sloping ramp also facing forwards. This would be a structural nonsense in the sense that the function of this ramp is as a stress relief design feature, which wouldn't work if reversed. However it is not clear how much of its function was understood at the time. Witness the roof beams in churches which were so commonly the 'wrong way round' for strength and economy.

The fingerboard has nice ebony edges ending in points just like the Gerle design. But it is not at all clear what the central section of the fingerboard is made of, certainly not ivory like the Gerle. It looks like a brown wood, maybe oak or plum. What, though, is the sharply delineated diagonal join in the fingerboard? Evidence of a lengthened neck? Heraldic significance? Restorer's work? I have no idea, suggestions please!

There appears to be a lace round the edge of the soundboard and the pegbox angle is much shallower than surviving lutes of the period, both things much more like later French lutes. In fact a lot of this makes me think of what were thought of as later French lutes and, bearing in mind Hilliard's stay and employment in France, I wonder if what we have here is in fact an early French fashion rather than an English one. Thinking of the process of commission for these miniatures, this would not be too surprising. The Gaspar Duiffoprugcar portrait is after all of a "French" maker. Maybe what we have here is the Duc d'Alencon's lute rather more than Elizabeth's.

The one aspect that does call other English lute pictures of the period forcibly to mind are the sloping shoulders of the lute. This is almost a defining characteristic of pictures of English lutes. Think of the Lady Anne Clifford tryptich, the Death and the Maiden painting, the Hardwick Hall table lute and in Norwich the 12 course lute in the Yarmouth Collection Vanitas.

Stewart McCoy has written as follows in reply:

The lute does seem a bit on the large side, and Elizabeth seems to be having some trouble playing it. It looks as if she is holding down a standard chord of D major, i.e. c1, e2, f3, e4, c5, but her index finger is not straight along the line of the fret. That might cause the odd buzz, if she's not careful. Not keeping the index finger straight along the fret for a barre is a common mistake of not-so-good players, or a sign that really the instrument is too big for the player's hand. She needn't worry though, because she plays well enough for a queen. Actually I think that D major chord shape can tell us quite a bit. Firstly, if ever I have my photograph taken when playing the lute, I nearly always pose with that chord shape. It looks good, with all the left-hand fingers involved doing something, and splayed out in a pretty pattern across the fingerboard. It's interesting that the Queen seems to think the same way. Secondly, I think that the D major chord tells us something about the size of the lute. It's not difficult to play on my 60cm mean lute, but I would never use that chord shape on my 84cm theorbo. Instead I'd opt for an easier shape involving open strings, for ease of playing and extra resonance. So Elizabeth's lute is big enough for her to have trouble placing her index finger correctly, yet not so big that she would avoid using that chord. How about a string length of 70cm or so? Thirdly, I would ideally use a small, treble lute of some kind in a renaissance consort to be heard playing fast, nifty divisions, like with Morley's broken consort; I would play posh solos on a mean lute; and I would use a large lute or theorbo for accompanying a singer or for playing with a largish, loudish baroquish emsemble. Lutes of different sizes have different functions. Now, if Elizabethans think the same way, why is she playing an instrument which looks like an accompanying instrument? How could a queen accompany someone, if she was to stay star of the show? Or perhaps the artist is making some subtle point that maybe she should be accompanying someone, i.e. get married to the Duc d'Alencon. Who knows?

Best wishes,

Stewart McCoy.

If anyone has any comments about these pictures which differ from or expand on mine, please do either email me direct or submit them to the lutenet at
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