I flatter both kings and shepherds.
I correct faults without knowing them.
I do not speak but I counsel.
Often when I am true, I am not believed.
And when I flatter, I am always believed.
What am I?
No crooked leg, no bleared eye,
No part deformed out of kind,
Nor yet so ugly half can be
As the inward, suspicious mind.
LONDON, APRIL 23, 1565
“WANT TO GET YOURSELF KILLED?” SOMEONE SHOUTED.
Gilbert Sharpe threw himself out of the way of the lumbering cart and just missed being hit by another. He knew better than to dart across the street while looking back over his shoulder, but he’d been fearful that the man was following him again. Now he hoped it had been just his imagination.
Another voice yelled, “Stand aside, you clay-brained cur!” Curses chased Gil as he silently thanked God in both English and Italian for his escape. His broken leg had never healed quite right, so he couldn’t run anymore. Gripping his hemp sack of sable brushes, rolled canvases, and clothes packed around his precious Venetian mirror, the seventeen-year-old pressed himself between the arches of the huge gateway and let the carts and horses supplying Whitehall Palace stream by on Kings Street.
As he scanned the passing flow of faces, Gil shook his head to clear it. Surely he was safe in the city, for he’d been certain he’d given his nameless, faceless pursuer the slip at Dover. If Maestro Scarletti had hired someone to silence him, would that man pursue him even into the depths of the queen’s court?
He heaved a huge sigh and surveyed the area again. On one side of the gate lay the symbol of his old life, the Ring and Crown Inn. It was there that he and his mother, while trying to steal draperies years ago, had been caught by the queen. Partly because of his artistic talent, instead of sending them to prison, she’d taken them to the palace on the other side of the gate and into her care.
Now Gil noticed something he would never have seen when he left London three years ago: this gate which straddled the street was an awkward blend of English and Italian. Its style was like his own, he thought, and he could only pray that his beloved queen would like the pastiche. After all, what he’d become was partly Her Majesty’s doing.
As he walked on, Gil felt utterly grateful to be back home. His travails in Italy—his initial lack of the language, his painful yearning for England, the difficult days cleaning others’ brushes and filling in their backgrounds, even his precipitate flight—would all have been worthwhile if his enhanced skills at portraiture could please his royal patron.
Limping markedly, as he did when he was tired, Gil hurried down the street toward the towers and turrets of Whitehall Palace. He knew this massive beehive of buildings like the back of his hand holding brush to canvas, yet after studying art in the ducal court of Urbino and his visit to Venice, he saw it all with new eyes.
The rose-hued walls looked lacy with the cross-hatch pattern of the bricks. Above, opened to catch the sweet spring breeze, the thick-leaded windows of the queen’s favorite London residence cast diamond designs on patches of waxy green ivy. Windows, however high, used to mean nothing to him, for he’d once scrambled through them from rooftops or trees as if they were ground-floor entries.
He raised his voice over the street ruckus to call to the nearest guard at the gate, “Please send word to Her Majesty that Gilbert Sharpe, queen’s painter, is returned from Italy and requests an audience.”
The man guffawed in his face, belching out garlic breath. “Sure, an’ I’m her sec’tary of state, Sir William Cecil, just takin’ a respite from my business runnin’ the realm this fine spring day.” He nudged Gil with the butt of his pike. “Be off wi’ you, then,” he added, squinting at the lad’s disheveled state.
Years ago, Gil would have cursed the lout with hand signals, for he used to be mute, or dumb, as they called it. Then he would have scaled the back orchard wall and gotten on the grounds until Her Grace saw and summoned him. But what if these years away had changed everything? He should have gone to his mother’s house to wash and change his attire, then sent word ahead to see if he was welcome here.
“Give access, give way, ho! Make way for the queen’s master secretary!” Gil heard the shouts in the street. He saw that the small party on horseback did indeed include Sir William Cecil. In his mid-forties, he looked the same to Gil, maybe thinner and grayer but still reeking royal command. The crowd stopped and gaped, as it did at anyone important going in or out.
Gil summoned the last remnants of his strength. Though he was shoved back in the crush and his words were nearly drowned in the mingled huzzahs, he took the chance of calling out in Italian to catch Cecil’s attention. Like the queen herself, Cecil was learned in languages. The great man had given Gil a purse of coins and a task when he left England, so Gil considered himself to be working for Cecil as well as for the queen.
Me é, la’artista della regina,
Gilberto Sharpino!” he shouted as loudly as he could.
Cecil craned his neck and reined in, frowning, scanning the sea of faces. Hoping to be recognized, Gil snatched off his hat.
“Sono spora qui! Qui!”
Gil shouted, waving.
Cecil’s face registered surprise—as much surprise as ever crossed that long, guarded countenance Gil had sketched more than once.
“Let that lad pass to me!” Cecil said, pointing.
Gil was handed through the crowd and hustled into the courtyard where the party of six men was dismounting. Secretary Cecil handed his satchel to another and motioned Gil forward, then clasped his shoulder in greeting.
“The queen’s little painter scamp Gil Sharpe has grown up, has he not?” Cecil asked as Gil swept him a half bow.
“Grown up to be Gilberto Sharpino, trained in the Della Rovere painter’s school in Terra del Duca, Urbino, under Maestro Giorgio Scarletti, my lord.”
“A place full of artists, no doubt, but papists and pro-Spaniards, too, eh?”
“Oh, yes, my lord, and I have much to tell.”
“Her Majesty and I want to hear it all. It’s ironic you have come home now, for the Queen’s Grace and I are determined to select an official portrait of her to be sanctioned, copied, and distributed in the realm. Walk with me, lad,” he said, starting toward one of the guarded doors to sprawling Whitehall.
Gil’s pulse pounded. He walked with the most influential man in the realm—unless Her Majesty was still smitten with Lord Robert Dudley, whom the queen always called Robin. While yet in Italy, Gil had heard that Dudley had been named Earl of Leicester, elevated, some said, so the queen could pass her former favorite off as a possible English and Protestant husband to the Catholic Queen of Scots.
They strode past groups of courtiers and deeper into the palace, toward the royal chambers. Surely, Gil thought, this was a sign that he was destined to do great things for the queen at court. Did Lord Cecil imply that he could paint the queen’s official portrait?
“Two years ago,” Cecil went on, not turning his head and talking out of the side of his mouth as if nothing were really being said, “the queen signed a proclamation designed to control productions of her royal likeness. Everyone was painting or drawing her, and she hated most of the results—you remember that.”
“I do, my lord. Do you think that I might be allowed—”
“I know you came to speak later in life than most, lad, but have you not learned yet to listen more than you talk? The act prohibits painters, printers, and engravers from creating her picture until Her Majesty chooses a portrait of which she fully approves, which may then be copied.”
Gil nodded. The standard method of punching holes in the outline and smearing the pattern with charcoal to reproduce the likeness on a surface beneath, which would then be filled in and colored, was the old way the English still used. Gil had spent backbreaking hours studying his maestro’s identical technique. But then he’d stumbled on the carefully guarded secret some Italian artists, including Scarletti, used to both charm and cheat their noble clients. One reason he’d clandestinely left for home was that he feared his master would discover he knew of that dark deceit.
“She’s put the portrait business off of late,” Cecil went on, “but has now begun to pose for selected persons.”
“Oh,” Gil managed as his hopes deflated. “Well-established, sanctioned artists, you mean?”
“The point is, not sanctioned yet.” Cecil rounded on him, and they stopped walking. “My lad, I want a full report of Urbino politics rather than portraits later. Meanwhile, I will send you with one of my men to wash up a bit while I speak to the queen about your return. If she still favors you, perhaps you can serve her yet, though I’d say the selection of three artists for her portrait is firmly established and finally well under way.” He gestured down the hall, and they began to walk again, with his entourage several paces behind.
As they passed the double doorway of the privy gallery, which Gil recalled the queen often used for a council chamber, the boy glimpsed a makeshift artists’ studio set up inside. The long table had been shifted to the wall, and the queen sat on a dais in strong window light with the easels of three artists—two men and a woman—facing her with their backs to Gil.
Though Cecil didn’t notice at first, Gil stopped walking. The boy lingered as the sun cast its rippled light through the mullioned windows like flickering flames on the red hair, golden crown, and crimson costume of the queen.
Elizabeth Tudor had spring fever, yet here she sat for the initial posing which would lead to a selection of her official portrait. Though a dozen or so of her closest courtiers stood nearby, whispering and gesturing, she remained stiff and still while her thoughts raced.
The spring rains had abated of late and she yearned to leave London for the countryside or to go out in her barge—if the Thames wasn’t still so unruly. Sitting ramrod straight, holding the pose she herself had chosen, perspiring in the elaborate ruff and ermine-collared mantle draped with the heavy gold chains of state, she slanted her gaze around the room.
She detested this process of trusting others to convey her presence and person to the world. She fully intended to look in a mirror as she examined each painting to be certain the art told the truth—but for a few details she might change, of course, such as her long nose and sharp chin. But her eyes were good, she assured herself, her mother’s dark Boleyn eyes, which offset well her father’s ruddy Tudor coloring.
This was sheer agony, but she and Cecil had agreed that a standard must be set. A carefully crafted image must speak of her serene power and control to friend and foe alike, especially with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, spinning her webs of subtle rebellion even on England’s northern borders.
Elizabeth’s eyes skimmed the massive painting on the far wall, the one her father’s court painter, Hans Holbein, had done of King Henry VIII in all his glory. Though he dominated the piece, it also included his third queen, Jane Seymour, and their son, Prince Edward VI, Elizabeth’s long-lost, dear half brother. How she missed the boy, who had died in his fifteenth year. How she wished she could see him again and comfort him from night frights and fear of their own father—
The queen started and stared. As if her longing had summoned her dead brother, in the doorway stood a tall, lanky boy peering in; with this light in her face, she could not clearly see his own.
To the obvious dismay of her artists, she rose and shaded her eyes. The lad was Edward’s height but had more girth. He held some sort of sack. Oh, someone with Cecil, she thought as she saw her master secretary appear in the doorway and speak in earnest to the boy.
Her lady-in-waiting, Rosie Radcliffe, hurried to take the heavy gilt scepter and orb from her hands. “Your Grace desires a respite?”
“She desires to fly this hot cage,” Elizabeth told her, stepping away from the throne and dragging her heavy train, which others of her ladies hastily lifted from the floor. “Yes,” the queen mused aloud, “maybe I shall go elsewhere. Send for Lord Arundel and tell him I long to take the court to his fine Nonsuch while this place is swept free of winter woes.”
Cecil had entered and heard her words. “Your Grace, isn’t it a bit early for a progress with possible mired roads? Besides, the Queen of Scots’ envoy Maitland should be here soon with her decision on her marriage.”
get me started on that today, my lord,” she said, shrugging off her train into the arms of her women. “It’s bad enough to have to sit here while my very being is copied for the likes of my enemies to possess.”
“And your own people to see and cherish, Your Grace.”
But she felt petulant and strolled behind the artists’ easels, however much that rattled them. “Lavina,” she told the woman who usually painted miniatures of court personages, “you always make me look whey-faced. It may not matter as much in a tiny, closed locket around someone’s neck, but life-sized, I can’t abide it.”
“Hm” was all Elizabeth said as she glanced at the partial portraits that Will Kendale and Henry Heatherley had done. She looked skeletal in both, but she had lost weight this winter, and they were only sketching outlines so far.