Sir Francis Drake comes home: Exhibition at Buckland Abbey

Curator Alison Cooper oversees the hang of the portrait of Sir Francis Drake at Buckland Abbey

Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was one of the most renowned explorers of the Elizabethan era. Following his successful circumnavigation of the globe in 1580, he became hugely rich, nationally famous and internationally infamous.

This year, a full-length portrait of Drake from the National Portrait Gallery has ‘come home’ to Buckland Abbey in Devon, the former Cistercian Abbey that Drake purchased with his new-found wealth. Curator Alison Cooper considers how both Buckland Abbey and this iconic portrait were potent symbols in the projection of Drake's new status and identity.

Patriot or pirate?

When Drake left England on the voyage that was to become the circumnavigation, he was already wealthy and well-known locally. But upon returning in 1580, he found himself catapulted to a different level of wealth, fame and status. By the following year, Drake was knighted by Elizabeth I, granted his own coat of arms and was rich enough to buy Buckland Abbey. 

" Around the world he hath been and rich he is returned "
- Sir Philip Sydney, 1580

In recent history, Drake has been memorialised as a triumphant hero. This is evident in a group of paintings by Roland Pym commissioned for Buckland Abbey by Lord and Lady Astor as part of the 'Festival of Britain' in 1951. Pym's 'The World Encompassed' celebrates Drake as a symbol of patriotic, British maritime dominance and is on display as part of the current exhibition at Buckland.

The World Encompassed (1951) by Roland Pym charts the route of Drake's voyage / Buckland Abbey NT 810051
Pym Mural showing the circumnavigation
The World Encompassed (1951) by Roland Pym charts the route of Drake's voyage / Buckland Abbey NT 810051

In his own day, however, feelings about Drake were mixed. Some saw him as a hero whilst others were uncomfortable with his acts of piracy. Drake’s voyage was backed by Elizabeth I but his return to Plymouth was a hesitant one. Would he be welcomed back as a victor? Or, in changing political times, would he be seen as a traitor and aggressor?

He was rightly concerned. Elizabeth I's councillors recommended that Drake’s treasure, looted from the Spanish during his voyage, be returned. They wanted to keep diplomatic relations with Spain calm, but the treasure that Drake brought back was too good an opportunity for the queen to pass up, allowing her to pay off the national debt. Drake kept at least £10,000 for himself, using it to purchase Buckland Abbey.

A large house in the Devon countryside with former royal connections, Buckland Abbey was the perfect place to befit Drake’s new-found status
View of Buckland Abbey
A large house in the Devon countryside with former royal connections, Buckland Abbey was the perfect place to befit Drake’s new-found status

Portraiture in the Elizabethan period

During the Elizabethan period, portraits were not commissioned as works of art in their own right. Instead, they were commissioned as expressions of identity and ancestry by the rich and influential.

Drake, however, was the son of a farmer and had no direct descendants. In a world where ancestry meant so much, Drake needed to manufacture a sense of noble lineage, even if it wasn’t strictly true.
 

Sir Francis Drake, oil on panel, circa 1581, NPG 4032
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake, oil on panel, circa 1581, NPG 4032


Portraiture proved a critical tool for Drake in the expression of his new identity, where fine clothing and an impressive coat of arms situate him within this tradition.

Drake's clothing befits those of a figure at the centre of Elizabethan court life. He wears a satin doublet and a velvet-lined jacket. Although the pigment has now faded, these luxury fabrics were originally bright red. Painted using the pigment vermillion, it was one of the most expensive colours available to artists.

Drake wears a lace ruff, an indispensable item of Elizabethan court dress
Detail of portrait of Sir Francis Drake
Drake wears a lace ruff, an indispensable item of Elizabethan court dress

Drake's sword, more decorative than practical, alludes to his fearlessness and bravery in battle. Pinking (slashing fabric to reveal layers underneath) is demonstrated on his sleeves. Textiles were so expensive that this fashion statement was extremely extravagant. Silver detailing nods to his great wealth, as does the tablecloth edged with gold brocade.   

A striking element in the portrait is a prominent coat of arms which was granted to Drake by the queen. Its imagery was derived from Drake’s key accomplishment – the circumnavigation. The arms include two stars – the Arctic and Antarctic. On top of a globe, a ship (Drake’s Golden Hind) is pulled by a hand appearing from the clouds. 

Coming home

There are no known portraits of Drake prior to his circumnavigation. After it, with the enormous wealth and fame that came along, Drake's celebrity spread though his portraits, which people reportedly queued to see during his lifetime. 

It is not known if this full-length portrait was ever on display at Buckland during Drake’s life, but it is tempting to speculate that he commissioned it to display at his newly purchased country home.