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Art Historian Reveals the Elizabethan Selfie-Addict

As 2014, the proclaimed year of the ‘selfie’ comes to a close, a new book by Dr Elizabeth Goldring of the University of Warwick reveals Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, as the Elizabethan equivalent of a selfie-addict.

Dr Goldring said: “Dudley is notable for having commissioned more, and more varied, portraits of himself than any other courtier in Elizabethan England. If he lived today – we’d probably call him a ‘selfie-addict’! Most Elizabethan aristocrats sat for their portraits once or perhaps twice over the course of their entire lives, but Dudley commissioned a new portrait of himself, on average, every 18 months between Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558 and his own death thirty years later, often going to great efforts to recruit foreign artists with a history of patronage at the highest levels on the Continent.”

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the World of Elizabethan Art: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I’ is the first comprehensive survey of aristocratic art collecting and patronage in Elizabethan England, as seen through the activities of Kenilworth Castle’s most famous and controversial resident. Although Dudley’s picture collection and personal papers were widely dispersed after his death, this new book reconstructs his lost world – and, with it, a turning point in the history of British art.

The only patron-collector at the court of Elizabeth I to have achieved an international reputation for his activities as a patron of painters and a collector of paintings, Dudley self-consciously modelled himself not only on Henry VIII, who had laid the foundations of the Royal Collection, but also on the great patron-princes of Renaissance Europe, including the Medicis and the Habsburgs – in part, for the purpose of presenting himself as a suitor worthy of Queen Elizabeth I’s hand in marriage. Dr Goldring said: “In fact, in the portrait with a hound seen on the cover of the book (copy of dust jacket attached), executed in the 1560s by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish painter, Dudley strikes a pose made famous by the Habsburg Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.”

Dr Goldring continued: “As well as the numerous ‘selfies’ he commissioned, Dudley also, as part of his attempts to woo Queen Elizabeth, commissioned numerous portraits of the Queen, a number of which were designed to hang alongside images of himself; this is something that, so far as is known, no other Elizabethan courtier ever dared to do (since paired portraits were traditionally the preserve of married couples).

“For the celebrated Kenilworth festivities of 1575 – generally viewed as Dudley’s final attempt to persuade the Queen to marry him – he pulled out all the stops, commissioning a quartet of life-sized paintings of himself and Elizabeth for his picture collection at the castle and luring the Roman mannerist Federico Zuccaro to England to execute two of those paintings (now known only from Zuccaro’s preliminary sketches).

“So far as is known, Dudley was the only Elizabethan to have attempted, much less to have succeeded, in wooing an Italian painter to England – though the quest to do so was to become something of a holy grail for the leading patron-collectors at the Stuart court, including Charles I himself.”

Dr Goldring’s book is published by the Yale University Press.

Notes to editors:

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ROBERT DUDLEY, EARL OF LEICESTER, AND THE WORLD OF ELIZABETHAN ART: Painting and Patronage at the Court of Elizabeth I by Elizabeth Goldring is available from the Yale University Press, ISBN: 9780300192247