Three surviving versions of one of the most famous portraits of British history – showing a triumphant Elizabeth I after the defeat of the Spanish Armada – are to go on display together for the first time.
Royal Museums Greenwich said the three paintings had been brought together for technical research and conservation, but had never been publicly exhibited together in their 430-year history.
The three paintings are all versions of the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist. One is in the Greenwich collection, acquired in 2016 after a nationwide fundraising campaign. The others are being loaned by their respective owners, the National Portrait Gallery and Woburn Abbey.
They will go on display in the Queen’s House, a 17th-century Palladian villa designed by Inigo Jones, from next February for what Greenwich described as a once-in-a-generation event.
All three versions would probably have been painted shortly after one of the most famous conflicts in British history when, in 1588, the Armada was defeated to foil Spain’s attempt to invade England.
They show Elizabeth in full Gloriana mode, the epitome of royal elegance and rich in symbolism. It is an image recognisable to generations of schoolchildren because of its inclusion in textbooks and one that has inspired film and stage portrayals by actors such as Dame Judi Dench, Glenda Jackson and Cate Blanchett.
Behind the Queen in each painting are seascapes that depict episodes from the conflict. In the Greenwich and Woburn Abbey versions, Elizabeth I’s right hand is resting on a globe showing the Americas.
Woburn Abbey is able to lend its portrait because the house is undergoing a major refurbishment. It has been in the collection of the family of the Duke of Bedford for centuries .
The NPG version is being lent as the gallery prepares to close for nearly three years for its own major revamp. Its painting was presented to the British Museum in 1765 by the 11th Earl of Buchanan and transferred to the NPG collection in 1879.
Greenwich got its Armada Portrait in 2016 after a high-profile and successful £10.3m fundraising campaign to buy the painting from descendants of Sir Francis Drake. It included £7.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Allison Goudie, curator of art at Royal Museums Greenwich, said they were absolutely delighted to unite the portraits for their first public display together. “This really is a very rare and special opportunity to come face-to-face with Elizabeth I like never before.”
• Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I is a free display at Queen’s House, 13 February to 31 August 2020