The Mask of Youth - Queen's House, Greenwich


The Mask of Youth

The Queen’s Presence Chamber

3 October 2018 – 3 February 2019


The Queen’s House, Greenwich has unveiled a major new installation by internationally acclaimed British artist, Mat Collishaw. The specially commissioned work, The Mask of Youth, responds directly to one of the most important paintings in the Museum’s collection, the iconic and powerful Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I.


The Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth’s reign (1558–1603), the Spanish Armada’s failed attempt to invade England in July and August 1588. Despite being painted shortly after the invasion when the Queen was almost fifty-five, the painting depicts a woman who looks considerably younger. Inspired by this idealised image of the Tudor Queen, Collishaw has collaborated with leading special effects designers using cutting-edge technology to create a stand-alone animatronic mask which approximates Elizabeth’s appearance at the age of the portrait’s creation.


Positioned directly opposite the Armada Portrait and suspended in isolation on surveillance mirror, the installation places both the aging and ageless Elizabeth in dialogue. Through this careful juxtaposition, Collishaw’s work explores the different sides of the queen, both real and imagined, and grapples with notions of mortality, the manipulation of truth, political propaganda and the extent to which female power is tied to appearance and youth.


Using digital scans of Elizabeth’s portraits and the electrotype cast of her effigy, as well as descriptions by her contemporaries, the artist has devised a chillingly lifelike recreation of Elizabeth I. Known for his fusion of technology and art, Collishaw brings Elizabeth back to life before her audience. By leaving the animatronics that facilitate her movements deliberately exposed at the back of her head, the artist suggests that behind Elizabeth’s public persona, her every movement was carefully controlled. Beneath the surface and behind her mask, she is busy making decisions and calculations to which no one else is privy.


Inspired by historic art throughout his career, Collishaw has long been fascinated by the Armada Portrait and its function as a political statement that emphasises the sovereignty and ‘agelessness’ of a queen who in reality was middle aged, unmarried and heirless. Whilst Elizabeth’s portraits were designed to flatter, they also highlight her understanding of the fact that her public image could be used to suggest her power and authority. As a woman of intelligence, she used this tool to help overcome the cultural prejudices she faced due to her gender and to advertise her virtues, skills and competence as a female head of state.


Evidence suggests that Elizabeth did not sit for lengthy portrait sessions. Instead, her face was the only part of her that was drawn from life. These drawings were used to form an approved pattern that was used as the basis for any reproduction of her image. Collishaw’s mask indicates the ways in which these images might be manipulated for political purposes in order to efface the vulnerabilities and perceived weaknesses that Elizabeth took pains to hide. The images produced during the latter part of Elizabeth’s life have come to be known as ‘The Mask of Youth’ because of the careful way in which they emphasise the Queen’s beauty and strength over her aging face and body. By using the name of the portrait type as his title, Collishaw suggests that Elizabeth’s life was spent behind a mask both figuratively and metaphorically.


In today’s world of social media and obsession with manipulating photographs to present their subjects in the best light, Collishaw’s mask raises questions about both the historic and modern preoccupation with female appearance. Elizabeth was a pioneer of many of the practices of image manipulation that technology facilitates. Collishaw invites audiences to consider the loneliness and isolation that may lie underneath the presentation of a carefully-curated public image.


Mat Collishaw’s Mask of Youth is on display at the Queen’s House from 3 October 2018 – 3 February 2019. The presentation of Collishaw’s works is part of a three-year Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) programme of events and exhibitions related to the Armada portrait and Elizabeth I that will be taking place until spring 2020. The programme includes a newly commissioned display of photographic portrait miniatures by Bettina von Zwehl, in the King’s Privy Chamber of the Queen’s House. For more information visit



The Queen’s Presence Chamber

From 13 April 2018, works by celebrated British contemporary artist Mat Collishaw will go on display in the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Hanging alongside the iconic Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, the exhibition focuses on Collishaw’s photographic Insecticide series (2006-2014), and marks the first phase of the artist’s works to be presented in the Queen’s Presence Chamber. The second phase, a new commission in response to the Armada Portrait, will be revealed in September 2018.

Known for his visual explorations of humanity’s darker side, Collishaw’s works often reference myth and art history. In Insecticide, butterflies – symbols of the fragility of life – are crushed and enlarged to an exaggerated scale. The works capture the lifeless bodies of the insects, suspended in darkness and yet illuminated by the vibrant hues of their torn wings. The bright and mesmerising colours are in contrast with the dark nature of the subject, with the splayed bodies, broken antennae and dislocated limbs revealing the brutality and violence behind their extermination.

The intense detail, lighting and simple motif of a figure set against a dark background is something shared by these photographs and Elizabethan portraiture. The velvety wings and iridescent tones of the Insecticides echo the sumptuous texture of Queen Elizabeth’s dress and its opulent embellishment. The iconic image of the Armada Portrait resonates strongly with Collishaw’s work, the beauty and seeming immortality of the ageing queen appearing just as fragile and fleeting as the butterfly’s wing.

Collishaw was inspired to create the Insecticide series following the birth of his son, after which his home had to be cleared of an infestation of bugs. He collected the remains of the dead insects, squashed them between 35mm slides, and scanned them at high resolutions, projecting the resulting images 12 feet high. Through digital manipulation, he amplified the microscopic detail, intensifying the colours and revealing facets of beauty that trick the viewer into initially seeing an alluring image, before noticing the repellent nature and suffering of the subject.

Also on view is Fading Memories of the Sun (2013), like the photographs from Insecticide, it depicts an act of violence, through the hypnotic image of flowers engulfed in flames. In both series, the visual impact of these moments of death and destruction highlight the fleeting fragility of life and beauty.

The works by Mat Colllishaw will be on display at the Queen’s House from 13 April – 23 September 2018. New work created by Mat Collishaw in response to the Armada Portrait will go on display in the Queen’s House in September 2018. The presentation of Collishaw’s works is part of a three-year Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) programme of events and exhibitions related to the portrait and Elizabeth I that will be taking place until spring 2020. For more information visit

Romney Rd, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF