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  • Miles Hedley

MORTAL MOON at the Queen’s House

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

It’s hard to imagine more fitting companions for the iconic Armada portrait of Elizabeth I at the Queen’s House than Susan Derges’ Mortal Moon quartet because these photographic artworks are as sumptuous and layered with meaning as the painting they gather round to honour.

Derges began three of her pieces by capturing a star-filled sky over her Dartmoor home through a neighbour’s telescope. The fourth is based on a pulsating image she took of a gloriously golden harvest moon.

Ghostly traces of a 16th century celestial globe by Mercator – also in the exhibition - were added to the negatives which were then floated in a tank of moving water lit from above so that the ripple patterns were transferred onto the photographic image.

The last layer to be added was the cut-out silhouette of a 16th century ship which was slid into place while the negative was still in the tank.

The results are extraordinary. The blue ground of the three star-laden pieces seems to throb with energy while the gold of the fourth is luminously gorgeous. At the heart of each picture, one of the silhouetted ships battles elemental forces as it sails the oceans of the world in a restless quest for wealth and power.

And all four vessels echo details in the Armada portrait – a wrecked Spanish galleon, a proud English warship and two dhows whose crescent-shaped sails mirror the crescent formation of the doomed Spanish Armada which is seen lining up through a window over Elizabeth’s right shoulder.

The dhows also represent the cultural and material treasures of the east where science and scholarship flourished, classical literature was preserved and jewels, precious metals, spices and silks were traded. Or stolen.

In a final brilliant touch, Derges frames her images with killer details from the Armada portrait – teardrop pearls, mermaids, Tudor roses and, of course, the moon.

Derges took the title of this exquisite show from a sonnet by Shakespeare because he, like so many of his artistic contemporaries, praised his queen as a moon goddess.

Elizabeth herself relentlessly cultivated the notion of a divinely sanctioned monarchy which helped to establish her at the heart of a power-driven personality cult manifested in the Armada portrait.

Mortal Moon triumphantly captures the essence of that power. But it also underlines the fragility of mankind and the ultimate fate that awaits us all, no matter how powerful we may think we are. It is a message as relevant today as ever it was – perhaps even more so.

The exhibition, part of a continuing project by the Queen’s House to bring the Armada portrait to the broadest possible public, continues till next January. For further information go to

Top two images: © Susan Derges, commissioned by the National Maritime Museum, London

Armada portrait photo: © The National Maritime Museum, London

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