Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Ralegh (c. 1554-1618), wearing garments densely decorated with pearls. Sir Walter Ralegh (c. 1554-1618), wearing garments densely decorated with pearls. Copyright National Portrait Gallery, acc. no. NPG 7.

The National Portrait Gallery in London houses a portrait (91.4 x 75 cm) of Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1554-1618), dated to 1588 and painted by an unknown artist. It shows the famous English sailor and explorer, and also author, courtier and poet, who made various voyages to Middle and South America. He was instrumental in the British colonisation of North America, and was dedicated to the seach for the famous El Dorado.

The portrait shows Sir Walter Raleigh in all the splendour he could muster. He is wearing a doublet with large pearl buttons, a black hose decorated with many rows of pearls, a black sword belt, also decorated with pearls, and a heavy, fur-lined coat in black with straight and curved rows of applied pearls. The final pearl detail comes in the shape of his double pearl earring.

The pearls and other details are often regarded as symbolising Raleigh's loyalty to the Queen, Elizabeth I. At the time of painting, pearls were seen as symbols of virginity, which would directly relate to the 'Virgin Queen'. Also the crescent moon, in the top left-hand corner, may have a similar meaning, referring to the moon-goddess Cynthia (also identified with Artemis and Selene), with whom the Queen had been compared (compare Raleigh's poem 'The Ocean to Cynthia'). Recent studies in preparation for the exhibition Elizabeth I & Her People (NPG, October 2013 - February 2014) have shown that an image of the sea was painted directly underneath the crescent moon, referring to the moon goddess ruling the waters (Walter/water) below her. 

On the other hand, the many pearls applied to Raleigh's garment may also refer to his life-long quest for the riches of the Americas: in the late fifteenth century, Columbus had discovered the rich oyster beds along the coast of Venezuela ('Pearl Coast'), which from the early sixteenth century were exploited and the pearls were being exported to Europe, as for instance the famous 'La Peregrine', which, via the Spanish royal treasury and the family of Napoleon, until recently was held by Elizabeth Taylor. But also the many pearls worn by Queen Elizabeth I in her portraits, probably originate from the Americas, and not from the East (see here) as is often surmised. The pearls applied to Raleigh's garments are probably also of American provenance.

In the top right-hand corner is inscribed: Aetatis suae 34 An 1588. To the left is Raleigh's motto: Amore et Virtute

National Portrait Gallery online catalogue (retrieved 22 January 2017).


Last modified on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 13:25