The Guinea Pig as a pet in Tudor England

A little known painting of three Elizabethan children containing what may be the first portrait of a guinea pig has been uncovered by the National Portrait Gallery in London. It will be on display later this year during the exhibition Elizabeth I and Her People.


The portrait, which is dated to circa 1580, depicts three unknown children aged six, seven and five with a beige, brown and white guinea pig, cradled by the little girl at the centre of the group. It is possibly the earliest-known depiction of this animal in a portrait. Popular in Europe as exotic pets, guinea pigs were introduced from South America by Spanish traders.

In an exhibition richly endowed in portraits with animals, the youngest boy in this painting holds a small bird, probably a finch, which was a particularly popular pet with children because of its striking plumage. Its representation in children’s portraiture may be intended to symbolise the Christian soul by association with depictions of the infant Christ with a goldfinch.

The sitters almost certainly belong to a wealthy family of the nobility or gentry as they are expensively and fashionably dressed, whilst the skilful painting suggests that it is the work of an artist familiar with Netherlandish techniques. Portraits of children became popular among the nobility and gentry in the sixteenth century across Europe, enabling families to document lineage and fertility, and to capture individual likeness, at a time when child mortality was high. The image reflects the growth in different types of portraits in this period, a major theme of the Gallery’s new exhibition, which is the first to look at the rise of new social classes in Elizabethan society.

As well as the usual portrait staples of horses, stags and dogs, more exotic animal appearances in Elizabeth I and Her People include an elephant on a crest, a falcon, a ring decorated with a tiny depiction of a grasshopper and an intricate purse made in the shape of a frog.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, is shown riding a mule and the Queen herself is depicted with an ermine and, in the recently discovered Isaac Oliver postcard-sized portrait Elizabeth I and the Three Goddesses, with a peacock. With of over 100 objects, including accessories artefacts, costumes, coins, jewellery and crafts, Elizabeth I and Her People will include not just portraits of courtiers, but also intriguing lesser-known images of merchants, lawyers, goldsmiths, butchers, calligraphers, playwrights and artists – all of whom contributed to the making of a nation and a new world power.

The exhibition will show how members of a growing wealthy middle class sought to have their likenesses captured for posterity as the mid-sixteenth-century interest in portraiture broadened. Portraits of courtiers such as Christopher Hatton, Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth Vernon are joined by explorers such as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher, ambassadors such as Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, financiers such as Thomas Gresham and poets including John Donne.

Elizabeth I and Her People runs from October 10, 2013 to January 5, 2014. Please visit the National Portrait Gallery website to learn more

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