...Many (if not most) visitors to the National Portrait Gallery, London will never know that Elizabeth Taylor (and her then husband, Richard Burton) were also great lovers of the arts. And it was because of this love that today the NPG has in its collection a small but beautiful portrait of Queen Mary I of England by Hans Eworth.
The portrait--NPG 4861--is a small picture, diminutive even at 8.5 x 6 5/8 inches. It may have been a cabinet picture of the kind that was kept in a small 'cabinet' or cupboard in an owner's private chambers . It could also be that its small size allowed for portability so that it could easily be moved during travel. Within the picture Mary stands in front of a green banner of state. In front of her is a carpet-covered ledge, reminiscent of the kinds found in Giovanni Bellini's depictions of the Virgin Mary.Share
In her proper right hand Mary holds a red English rose and in her left a leather glove. She is wearing a purple velvet gown with an undergown of cloth of gold with gold embroidery. Her hands are covered with rings, eight in total. And around her neck she wears a necklace of pearls and diamonds, with a large square diamond pendant. Below this pendant hangs a large tear-drop shaped pearl that is probably "La Peregrina" (The Incomparable), a pearl made famous by its being given to Mary I by Philip II in 1554, the same year that the portrait was created.
In 1969 Sir Richard Burton purchased a pearl said to be La Peregrina for his then wife, Dame Elizabeth, at Sotheby's of London. Soon thereafter, and with the help of Cartier, Elizabeth designed a necklace for the pearl based upon jewels depicted in a [now unknown] portrait of Mary Queen of Scots . Two years later, in December 1971, the Eworth portrait was offered for sale at Sotheby's, where it was eventually purchased by the Leggatt Brothers for £28,000. The Leggatt Brothers were fine art dealers and often acted as the go-between for high profile buyers and various auction houses, ensuring that the buyer would not have to pay a premium based upon their celebrity status. The Leggatts also occasionally acted on behalf of the National Portrait Gallery, and many other national collections, in order to assist in valuation and also in order to ensure that important pictures remained in the national collections .
From the NPG files it seems clear that from the beginning the Gallery expressed interest in the picture, hoping to add it to their collection. Life portraits of Queen Mary were then and continue to be very rare and although this Eworth portrait is small, it would have been an important and valued picture for the nation's collection. At the same time, Sir Burton was a great lover of history and his wife may have owned the pearl seen in the picture, making their reasons for wishing to purchase the picture obvious. Burton and Taylor could have quite easily purchased the picture and kept it in their private collection. Often pictures purchased in such a fashion make it unlikely that they are ever seen again, or at least for many, many years . Instead, Taylor and Burton chose to help the National Portrait Gallery buy the picture, ensuring that it would remain with the nation forever.