Studio Zenobia
The Elizabeth Collection

THE ELIZABETH SERIES is a collection of painting/mosaics/collages of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), queen of England from 1558 to 1603. They are all based on 16th century portraits of England’s most famous and, many historians agree, best and most magnificent monarch. The paintings are interpretive rather than realistic. The mosaic-like cover of seashells used in place of painterly detail is unique. I have always had a passionate relationship with seashells, which has intensified over the last several years, culminating in an urge to use shells in my work.

Elizabeth I is not only the icon of the age which bears her name, but is also a fascinating human figure, with recognizable positive and negative traits. Looking at portraits of the Queen, I was intrigued by the elaborate structure of her gowns, the over-the-top textures of the fabrics, the jewels, the pearls, creating the general impression of a mosaic. Decorating the paintings with tiny shells, abalone pieces, coral bits, imitation gems, pearls, and other objects from the sea was an evolutionary step in the series. As the work progressed, I used shells more intensively, finally culminating in an almost overpowering mosaic of shells, pearls and gems.

The paintings/mosaics are about layering, covering up, and hiding; layering her personality, covering up the Queen, hiding the woman. The Queen's costume is also about flaunting the wealth of her country. The pearls, jewels, and other rich adornments tell the viewer that here is a very rich country, just what the Queen wishes us to know. At the same time, we are told to keep our distance; the mosaics shield the woman from a too-penetrating gaze; she is, after all, THE QUEEN. The contradiction is that Elizabeth loved being looked at and admired, but she also longed for a private life. Each work reveals two Queens: The formal, stately monarch and the secret self. The formal queen is in the thick layer of jewels and fabric that effectively obscures the woman. We can still see her face, it is true; but on closer examination, we see the thick application of white pigment, the bright red lipstick, the finely penciled eyebrows, the red wigs, all were used in an attempt to cover up her real face and make her appear younger. But beneath the subterfuge, if we look carefully enough, is it the eyes perhaps? We may catch a glimpse of a more vulnerable creature.

All of the portraits I used for reference are state portraits. They are formal, stiff, and without warmth, none of them show her smiling. She was not pretty or beautiful in the conventional sense; her face was too long and narrow, as was her nose, but she gave the illusion of being beautiful because of her vital, almost ethereal personality.