Experts Say This Painting of a Random Woman Is Really a Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I—and Now It Could Fetch $322,000 at Auction

This early piece of “brand management,” as a Bonham’s expert puts it, contrasted a “dour” image of the queen.

Attributed to Steven van der Meulen, Queen Elizabeth I, 1562. Photo: Bonhams.

Long thought to be an anonymous portrait, a painting of a woman holding a rose is now said by Bonham’s auction house to be an early portrait of the legendary English Queen Elizabeth I.

When a restorer who was assigned to clean what was thought to be a 17th-century canvas removed overpainting on the face, the familiar features of Queen Elizabeth came to light. Since then, Bonham’s has consulted with experts at the Yale Center for British Art, and is confident enough to put the painting up for auction December 4 with an estimate of up to £250,000 (about $322,860). The house is attributing the painting to the workshop of Netherlandish painter Steven van der Meulen, and has dated the work to 1562.

Elizabeth I’s early years were “dogged with instability and threats from home and abroad,” says Andrew McKenzie, director of the house’s old masters department, in a statement. “From her accession onwards, however, she and her court were acutely alive to the importance and possibilities of presentation—we’d call it brand management today—and this portrait is among the very first we know that projects a new, approved image of the Queen.”

The last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor, Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603. Despite being courted by Eric XIV of Sweden; Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles of Austria; and Philip II of Spain (the widower of her half-sister, Mary I, upon whose death she ascended to the throne), she never married, and she became referred to as the Virgin Queen.

Van der Meulen’s auction high was achieved at Sotheby’s London in November 2007, when a full-length portrait of Elizabeth I sold for $5.4 million. Just twenty-three canvases by van der Meulen have come to auction; the Bonham’s work is his only other portrait of the monarch.

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