A gentle rain trickled outside the arched window of the round tower—my temporary studio. The candlelight flickered, casting wavy shadows under the Queen’s noble eyes. ‘Tis must have been me breath blown from a belly of nerves. You see…not every day t’an artist gets to paint a queen. Her portrait must be perfect.
I set me palette before me and scraped out some vermilion red, azurite, indigo, yellow ochre, and white with me palette knife. Queen Elizabeth’s face was ghost-white; ‘twould not require more than a speck of other colors to blend her skin tone. Her burnt umber eyes bore through me as I worked to create a portrait pleasing to Her Majesty. Surely she was trying to read me mind.
Were I to tell her I bought a used canvas from an artist and her face was to cover another lady’s eyes, more vibrant than the Queen’s own, her courtiers would escort me out the window, forty feet to drop. So I spake not of the layer under the golden dress and crimson curtains.
Two young maidens stood ready for the Queen’s various needs: a sip of wine, a fan, a handkerchief to wipe her royal sweat. I were needin’ a kerchief as well—my head felt like spring dew on a hog.
Just as I dabbed a highlight on a ruby jewel, her Majesty announced, “That’ll be all for now. Tidy your things and return next week to finish. Good day, young sir. A servant will be up shortly to attend you.”
I bowed and hoped she wouldn’t glance upon my unfinished painting. ‘Twould need another coat and glaze to be a proper portrait. She did not look. “Thank you, Your Grace.” Both maidens took her hands, helping her rise awkwardly in her fifty pounds of fabric. They straightened her gown and toddled after her, closing the door behind them.
No sooner had I shut my paint box, than her servant, my dear friend, Jonathon, bounded through the doorway. “How now, good lad?”
“Fine, well met, good Thomas! How goes your painting?”
“Come see. Mind thee, ‘tis not a finished piece yet.”
Jonathon squinted and stroked his chin. “Methinks you are most talented m’lad, but I daresay a foolish fellow.”
“A snake? The Queen is holding a snake? Surely thou dost jest. Know you not what she shall do? She shall have your head to the guillotine.”
“Aye, you know not the symbol of a snake: wisdom, prudence, and judgment. A perfect symbol for her Majesty.”
“Tis true, but know ye not the serpent’s other symbols? Satan and original sin. The Queen may be insulted. And that shall be the end of you. Queen Elizabeth has been the most virtuous ruler in England compared to her predecessors. She prides herself on being a virgin and ruling the land with justice. Thirty something years so far. Were I the painter, she would not hold sin in her hands.”
“Hmm…right you may be. But have you no idea the struggle to paint those green and gold scales from my memory of a garden snake? I must a been cupshot. Aye, I shall paint me flowers in her hands instead. ‘The serpent underneath…‘twill never be noticed. And I shall keep me head.”
“Wise choice. Well, if you don’t need my service, I shall go and let you paint in peace.”
“Fare you well, good lad.”
“God save you, Master painter.”
“Now to mix the shades of a pure white rose. Queen Elizabeth shall send forth her virtuous image to distant lands and I shall keep my secret.”
National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Place, London March 13, 2010
The crowd huddled together to hear Ms. Macnair speak of the recent discoveries through technical analysis and x-ray photography.
“As you can see, over time, deterioration of the layers of paint has revealed the unknown artist’s original design. Queen Elizabeth has her hand clasped around a snake. We can only speculate why the artist chose to cover the snake with a bouquet of roses.”
The crowd murmured and gathered closer, shoulders touching.
“If you look closely at her pale forehead, you can even see the eyes and nose of another lady, facing the opposite direction, painted under the Queen’s portrait.”
At the end of the tour, Ms. Macnair smiled and announced, “Thank you for attending our Concealed and Revealed collection. Please take a brochure. Hope you enjoyed the display of changing portraits.”
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