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23 MAR, 2011

Dame Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

Posted By Hope Walker

Earlier today in a Los Angeles hospital and surrounded by her four children, Dame Elizabeth Taylor passed away. Richard Roeper, a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, summed up reports of her life by describing her as "a superstar for more than half a century, a great screen icon...and a tireless crusader for noble causes." Although the news today is rightfully full of tributes for her work as an actress and humanitarian, a woman who among other things won two Oscars and also brought attention to and raised millions of dollars for those affected by HIV/AIDS, many (if not most) visitors to the National Portrait Gallery, London will never know that Elizabeth Taylor (and her then husband, Richard Burton) were also great lovers of the arts. And it was because of this love that today the NPG has in its collection a small but beautiful portrait of Queen Mary I of England by Hans Eworth.

The portrait--NPG 4861--is a small picture, diminutive even at 8.5 x 6 5/8 inches. It may have been a cabinet picture of the kind that was kept in a small 'cabinet' or cupboard in an owner's private chambers [1]. It could also be that its small size allowed for portability so that it could easily be moved during travel. Within the picture Mary stands in front of a green banner of state. In front of her is a carpet-covered ledge, reminiscent of the kinds found in Giovanni Bellini's depictions of the Virgin Mary.

In her proper right hand Mary holds a red English rose and in her left a leather glove. She is wearing a purple velvet gown with an undergown of cloth of gold with gold embroidery. Her hands are covered with rings, eight in total. And around her neck she wears a necklace of pearls and diamonds, with a large square diamond pendant. Below this pendant hangs a large tear-drop shaped pearl that is probably "La Peregrina" (The Incomparable), a pearl made famous by its being given to Mary I by Philip II in 1554, the same year that the portrait was created.

In 1969 Sir Richard Burton purchased a pearl said to be La Peregrina for his then wife, Dame Elizabeth, at Sotheby's of London. Soon thereafter, and with the help of Cartier, Elizabeth designed a necklace for the pearl based upon jewels depicted in a [now unknown] portrait of Mary Queen of Scots [2]. Two years later, in December 1971, the Eworth portrait was offered for sale at Sotheby's, where it was eventually purchased by the Leggatt Brothers for £28,000. The Leggatt Brothers were fine art dealers and often acted as the go-between for high profile buyers and various auction houses, ensuring that the buyer would not have to pay a premium based upon their celebrity status. The Leggatts also occasionally acted on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery, and many other national collections, in order to assist in valuation and also in order to ensure that important pictures remained in the national collections [3].

From the NPG files it seems clear that from the beginning the Gallery expressed interest in the picture, hoping to add it to their collection. Life portraits of Queen Mary were then and continue to be very rare and although this Eworth portrait is small, it would have been an important and valued picture for the nation's collection. At the same time, Sir Burton was a great lover of history and his wife may have owned the pearl seen in the picture, making their reasons for wishing to purchase the picture obvious. Burton and Taylor could have quite easily purchased the picture and kept it in their private collection. Often pictures purchased in such a fashion make it unlikely that they are ever seen again, or at least for many, many years [4]. Instead, Taylor and Burton chose to help the National Portrait Gallery buy the picture, ensuring that it would remain with the nation forever.

Within the NPG files mention of the Burton/Taylor purchase is thin, not because the NPG has no wish to acknowledge it (they do so today on their website). But rather, it seems clear that Taylor and Burton had no wish to draw attention to themselves, but rather to allow the picture and the NPG to shine.

Today the Taylor/Burton Eworth portrait of Mary I is on display in Room Three, where daily visitors from all over the world can view and appreciate it. The picture is also part of Making Art in Tudor Britain, an important research project at the NPG where it, together with several other Tudor pictures, is providing new and important insight into the creation of Tudor pictures and the artists and sitters behind such works. Although most people will remember Dame Elizabeth for her important and historic charitable work, and her powerful performances, I will always remember her as a selfless supporter of the arts in England.

[1]. See Patricia Fumerton, "Secret Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets," in Stephen Greenblatt, Representing the English Renaissance, University of California Press, 1988, 93 for a description of Elizabeth I's cabinet of pictures.

[2] See Elizabeth Taylor, My Love Affair With Jewelry, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002, 82.

[3] See Dalya Alberge, Leggatt ends an era in art: One of the world's oldest and most respected galleries is to close, The Independent, 18 September, 1992, Viewed Online 19 June, 2010.

[4] Although Elizabeth Taylor was quite well known for sharing her pictures and jewels. As recently as 2004 she allowed La Peregrina to be displayed at an exhibition held at the Winchester Cathedral, where it was part of a collection of objects commemorating Mary I wedding held in Hampshire in 1554. For more see Louise Jury, Revealed: The curious story of the wandering pearl that linked a queen to a movie star, The Independant, 17 June, 2004, 9.

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