Elizabeth I – the Sieve Portrait by Quentin Metsys

I always looked forward to Tristram Hunt’s articles in the Observer when he was a university lecturer and later became a Labour MP. It was a pity that he gave up any idea of ever being promoted in his party because of the posh associations of his first name. My heart went out to his parents who probably chose it because, with a fairly common family name, ‘Tristram’ from the Arthurian legends, would stand out a bit more. He came to my notice recently when, now the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, he wrote about diplomatic gifts.

Strictly speaking, the arrival of the Bayeux tapestry for display in Britain is not a gift, but a loan from President Macron. It impressed me when I saw it a decade ago. Created, it is thought, by embroiderers in England, it depicts the last invasion of the British Isles by a foreign power, the Normans, in 1066. For some centuries the language at court was Norman French until the strain of speaking to the populace in Anglo-Saxon proved too much. The Norseman left Scandinavia through overpopulation of a mountainous area with not enough lowland to cultivate and support the growing population. They also invaded Sicily a year later. I have met fair-haired Sicilians who claim Normans ancestry. A curious gift – or loan- one might think from one nation to another depicting a conquest. Is there a hidden agenda? Or is there a sub-text already hinted by the President – that after Brexit French will again become the diplomatic language? It was a French teacher of English who pointed out to me that a gift could also be something given with intent to corrupt or bribe – it had a sting in its tail!

Every time I go to the Pinacoteca in Siena I enjoy a private audience with Queen Elizabeth I. Usually there are no more than two or three visitors besides me, so I can spend as much time with her as I like. It was painted in 1583 by Quentin Metsys the Younger, commissioned for a diplomatic gift. Elizabeth is looking off left, as if she is going towards a door leaving what seems like a courtyard – the one in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence with the plaster garlands round the pillars? She is holding a sieve which holds water to show she is a virgen. Elegant courtiers are lolling against the columns in the background. They remind me of the way Shakespeare opens some of his plays, such as King Lear, with minor noblemen gossiping in the corridors about the main characters. It must originally have been a diplomatic gift. How then did it end up in a public collection in Siena? There are many more such gifts in galleries the world over, some just simple portraits more easily copied than larger ones with life happening around them or huge equestrian ones. They are also statements of power – or intended to be.

Is that what’s behind the gift – sorry, loan – of the Bayeux tapestry?


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