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  • Miles Hedley

CONSTRUCTION OF AN ICON from the Queen’s House to the National Portrait Gallery

Updated: Apr 15, 2019

Greenwich is one of the world’s great cultural hotspots thanks to its matchless array of architecture, art and music, a concentration of treasures that makes it a popular backdrop for film-makers from Hollywood to Hanoi.

As a result, those of us fortunate enough to live and work here are unfazed by seeing figures in full historical costume wandering the streets, even when they are as fabulously bejewelled and bedecked as Elizabeth I was when, escorted by singing ladies of the royal bedchamber and a crowd of wellwishers, she processed through the town on her way to central London on Friday.

Many passers-by barely gave Good Queen Bess so much as a sideways glance and travellers on the Thames Clipper that carried the monarch to Westminster seemed hardly to notice, which gave the event a distinctly surreal edge.

But in fact this apparently blasé acceptance of an extraordinary vision speaks volumes about the paradox at the heart of the British character – a love of ceremony coupled with an innate suspicion of authority. And it added an extra touch of spice to what was already a mouthwatering dish.

The Construction Of An Icon procession was part of a continuing project celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Armada Portrait that now has pride of place at the Queen’s House on the site of Elizabeth’s birthplace.

Last autumn saw the arrival of Mat Collishaw’s amazing animatronic face from the painting and a collection of miniatures of local teenage girls by photographer Bettina von Zwehl - both of which are 21st century takes on Tudor image-making and propaganda.

Friday’s procession saw the queen brilliantly made flesh by award-winning performer and writer Christopher Green. He wore a replica Armada Portrait dress, designed by Bronya Arciszewska and Oliver Cronk, as he made his stately way through the streets of Greenwich without ever losing his majestically patronising expression and manner. It was an acting masterclass.

Fanfares paid tribute to John Blanke, a free African trumpeter employed by the Tudor Court. And Green’s ladies of the bedchamber were members of the Amies Freedom Choir, all of whom are survivors of human trafficking. Their repertoire included the haunting Opina Anthem, a call-and-response song specially written for the occasion by acclaimed composer Peter Adjaye. The title comes from an old Ashanti word meaning human.

The choir performed on the Clipper up to Westminster and again when the royal entourage arrived at the National Portrait Gallery, which is currently hosting a stunning exhibition of Tudor miniatures by the likes of Nicholas Hilliard, Hans Holbein and Isaac Oliver.

Later, Green – now out of costume – joined Collishaw, von Zwehl and Queen’s House curator Matilda Pye in the NPG’s lecture theatre for a fascinating discussion about the ways in which the Armada Portrait is being celebrated and how the iconic 16th century painting continues to inspire and motivate artists. It was a perfect way to round off an inspiring day.

If you haven’t yet seen the Armada Portrait, I urge you to stop by the Queen’s House as soon as possible – you absolutely won’t be disappointed, especially at the moment when it is surrounded by wonderful photographs by Susan Derges in a special free exhibition called Mortal Moon.

And don’t forget to look at von Zwehl’s photographs too while you’re there – they are equally wonderful. For further information, go to

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