Portraits and pearls: preserving precious items for our new exhibition

Chequers Ring
Working with British library publishing, we produced photographs of various Tudor items from our own collections and that of our external partners to be used in the Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queen exhibition catalogue. 
Published date:

“The 16th century brought to life by precision photography"

The project

Our upcoming major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens explores the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in their own words.

They never met but their fates were intertwined. From their shared beginnings, facing the challenge of ruling in a man’s world, original handwritten letters between the opposing queens show how paranoia turned sisterly affection to suspicion. And this dangerous world of plots, espionage and treachery is brilliantly captured through some of the most significant manuscripts, printed works and objects in our collection, as well as loans from notable institutions such as Hatfield House, Ingatestone Hall and Chequers. Many of these needed to be digitised for the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. Our photographer, Jonathon Vines, stepped up to the challenge.

Jonathon regularly supplies images for our retail, licensing and publishing teams. He tells us how his team played a key role in the build-up to the exhibition and creation of the catalogue.

Jonathon Vines photographing at Hatfield House

The process

Understanding the historical and cultural significance of the time was vital in delivering images that showcased the items in their true glory. Jonathon visited three heritage sites to photograph some of our star loans. Each presented Jonathon and his team with a new challenge, but it was nothing their expertise couldn’t handle.

The portraits

Portrait of Robert Cecil, by or after John de Critz the elder, 1589, Ingatestone Hall

Sir William Cecil was the principal secretary in Elizabeth I’s early years as Queen but remained a trusted advisor to her up until his death in 1598.

Portrait of Robert Cecil, by or after John de Critz the elder, 1589, Ingatestone Hall

Sir Robert Cecil was the younger son of Lord Burley who became Principal Secretary in 1596. He entered into secret correspondence with James VI in 1601 and managed his ascension on Elizabeth I’s death.

The portraits of these two men are not just some of the finest 16th century English oil portraiture but also provide valuable insight into the story of Elizabeth and Mary’s rivalry, and were, therefore, among the most important items in the exhibition. Capturing high quality images for the catalogue required full portrait shots in consistent studio lighting. This required a lot of preparatory work to create the right conditions while ensuring the portraits were cared for and handled correctly.

A major challenge with indoor photography of oil paintings is creating a crisp image that is glare free. Jonathon creatively mounted each portrait at an angle to ensure the light hit them consistently. He used a polarising filter material on the lamps as well as the camera lens to achieve this.

Mounted portrait and camera set up at Ingatestone Hall

Elizabeth I's locket ring

The Chequers Ring is one of the few surviving pieces of jewellery worn by Elizabeth I. The spectacular mother-of-pearl ring, set with rubies in gold, includes a locket with two portraits – one of Elizabeth I and the other thought to be Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn.

Chequers Ring

Gold relief detail inside

Unlike the portraits, the ring was small and already mounted in a display case, which made photographing it much easier. However its size presented a different challenge in getting sharp, detailed hi-res images. Jonathon used a macro lens and the technique of focus stacking to capture a focused image highlighting each intricate detail clearly.

As the depth of field was shallow, some detailed parts of the ring could be slightly out-of-focus creating a softer image. This is not ideal for jewellery images, so the process required a series of photographs with varying focal points to ensure the entire ring was covered.

Photography of Chequers Ring

The results

With our photographic expertise and experience in handling historical items with care and precision we were able to capture the perfect catalogue shots. But more importantly we also preserved these national treasures digitally forever, for everyone to explore and enjoy.

Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens exhibition catalogue

If you’d like to see these items up close and in person you can visit Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens at the British Library between 8 October 2021 and 20 February 2022.

And you can see Jonathon’s photography for yourself in our catalogue, available now from the British Library shop, online or in store.

You can keep up to date with our Digitisation projects by signing up to our newsletter.

Contact us

Speak to one of our experts about digitising your collection.

E: businessdevelopment@bl.uk

T: +44 (0)1937 546060

W: bl.uk/digitisation-services

Key points

  • The exhibition catalogue retells the story of these remarkable women, using the original sources and latest research. It explores the story of how sovereign rulers who never met were forced to conduct their relationship through their letters, or the speeches of their ambassadors.
  • Elizabeth I reigned as Queen of England from 1558 until her death in 1603. Mary, Queen of Scots was Queen of Scotland from 1542 until her forced abdication in 1567.
  • Our Digitisation team worked tirelessly to photograph manuscripts, portraits and items from the British Library’s collection and institutions across the country, most notably from Chequers, Hatfield house and Ingatestone Hall.
  • The team had to approach each item differently, making sure to handle the item with care whilst maintaining a high standard of photography
  • By photographing a diverse number of items from the time period across the country, we not only allow for a more compelling and expansive exhibition, but also create a more digitally accessible learning experience.