The prosthetic mask and the metal mechanism behind it are suspended in a mirrored recess, so when you look at her troubled expression, you also see what she can see reflected in the mirror around her. The Armada Portrait shows Elizabeth I as a young woman, the pearl-skinned Faerie Queene. In reality, in 1588, she was 55. Collishaw’s techno-portrait shows her as she might have looked at that age, without the flattering deceit of the anonymous artist.
It is unsettling to see a figure from history bemused by her own image. Collishaw meditates not just on age and youth – his Elizabeth is about the same age as his YBA generation is now – but the macabre side of portraiture itself. His rubber-faced queen has been decapitated: she has lost everything but her face. It lends a new literalness to the old idea of a portrait as the “head” of someone famous. Though the Tudors were not sluggish when it came to chopping off heads: Elizabeth I’s mother, Anne Boleyn, lost hers to a royally commanded axe; Elizabeth herself ordered the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots.