Iconic Portraits and Tiaras Tell the Stories of Britain’s Indomitable Queens

As Elizabeth II celebrates 70 years on the throne, Sotheby’s takes a look back at royal history

Armada portrait of Elizabeth I
This 1588 portrait of Elizabeth I shows the queen after English troops successfully staved off an invasion by the Spanish Armada. It will be on view as part of a Sotheby's exhibition on British queens. Courtesy of Sotheby's

For centuries, British monarchs have used portraiture to present a carefully crafted image to the public—and portraits of British queens have become iconic national symbols.

Now, as Elizabeth II marks 70 years on the throne, portraits of seven British queens throughout history will go on display in a new exhibition organized by auction house Sotheby’s.

Portraits of Mary I; Elizabeth I; Mary, Queen of Scots; Mary II; Queen Anne; Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II will be on view as part of “Power and Image: Royal Portraiture and Iconography,” slated for May 28 through June 15 in London.

The exhibition coincides with a major milestone for Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign. In February, 95-year-old Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to achieve 70 years of service. In June, the country will celebrate with four days of Platinum Jubilee festivities.

The exhibition includes the so-called Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, an iconic painting on loan from Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England. It depicts in the monarch in 1588, after England faced invasion by the Spanish Armada

It was an important moment for the country and for the queen herself. 

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,” Elizabeth I said in a speech to troops before the invasion in July 1588.

British troops successfully staved off the invasion—and the victory bolstered both the nation’s pride and its confidence in its mighty navy. 

In the painting, Elizabeth I is studded with gems and surrounded by royal symbols. She rests her hand on a globe. 

As Sotheby’s notes in a statement, it “encapsulates the aspirations of the nation at a watershed moment in history whilst also carefully disseminating an awe-inspiring spectacle of female power and majesty.”

Britain raised more than $13 million in 2016 to buy the painting from the descendants of Francis Drake, the English explorer who commissioned it from an unknown artist around 1590. 

As Mark Brown wrote for the Guardian in 2016, the piece is “one of the best-known images from British history, familiar to generations of schoolchildren because of its inclusion in textbooks.”

Andy Warhol screen print of Elizabeth II
Andy Warhol created this 1985 screen print of Elizabeth II as part of his Reigning Queens series. Courtesy of Sotheby's

Sotheby’s will also display a vibrant blue screen print of Elizabeth II from Andy Warhol‘s Reigning Queens series, which the American pop artist created from the official photographic portrait of the queen taken to commemorate her 25th anniversary on the throne, the Silver Jubilee, in 1977.

The exhibition features books and manuscripts with royal provenance, including the Bible used at Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation and a 1572 death warrant signed by Elizabeth I. It lays out instructions for executing ​​Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, who led the failed Rising of the North rebellion in an attempt to depose Elizabeth I in favor of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

Sotheby’s is hosting an auction of British art, plus several performances, lectures and debates, in honor of the Platinum Jubilee.

Visitors to the auction house’s New Bond Street galleries can also ogle 50 glittering tiaras, on loan from aristocratic families across Europe. Drawing inspiration from ancient Greeks and Romans, the fashion-forward French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine first popularized diadems in Europe in the late 18th century.

1960s turquoise tiara
Sotheby's is showing 50 historical tiaras as part of the exhibition. Courtesy of Sotheby's

Over time, royal tastes evolved—and so did tiaras, with designs ranging from diamond-studded leaves in the shape of a wreath from the 1830s to an Indian-inspired display of turquoise cabochons from the 1960s. Members of the royal family weren’t the only ones to wear tiaras—aristocrats, too, viewed them as a status symbol.

“When you were at court and wanted to make a display of wealth, when you’re at society parties or court events, you would be mimicking the royalty of the time,” Kristian Spofforth, who leads Sotheby’s jewelry department, tells Town & Country. “Coronets, tiaras, diadems—you would have them as the prominent display of wealth and power.”

“Power and Image: Royal Portraiture and Iconography” will be on view at Sotheby’s in London from May 28 through June 15.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.