Now we’re accustomed to makeup industries worth hundreds of billions of dollars, makeup tutorials taking pride of place on YouTube and a widespread fascination with all things beauty.
However, before any of this, there was a very basic approach to the art of makeup using some extremely dangerous substances. You could even say certain royals of the past had quite the toxic relationship with such makeup.
One such royal was Queen Elizabeth I who is known for her usage of thick layers of makeup in a bid to sport skin as white as snow, something that the English elite idolised at that time.
Before we dive into the deadly products that the royal religiously used, the question is why did Queen Elizabeth I want to smother her skin in so much of the stuff in the first place?
Aside from the beauty ideal attached to a pale complexion, the royal was also trying to hide skin that featured a lot of smallpox scars.
On 10 Oct 1562, Elizabeth had a high fever and was struck down with a bad case of smallpox. Though surviving the nasty disease, it left her with permanent scarring scattered across her visage.
This not only altered her physical appearance but would leave her vulnerable to constant criticism and judgement; something that she commented on in 1586 whilst addressing parliament. Elizabeth said:
“We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed; the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.”
Armed with a desire to cover imperfections and to disguise the substantial scarring, Elizabeth turned to Venetian ceruse, a cosmetic composed of white lead and vinegar. Something that she applied to her face and neck.
Lead is a substance that is not safe to be applied on to the skin and can lead to hair loss, skin deterioration and even death from prolonged lead poisoning. This would have likely corroded the skin.
So began the vicious cycle for Elizabeth, as her skin deteriorated, it is said that she would layer on more and more, reaching a coverage that was one inch thick towards the end of her life.
To make matters worse, the Queen would have her makeup applied once a week and would leave it on for the duration, allowing the lead a chance to completely soak into the skin.
When Elizabeth did have her makeup removed, historians believe that she may have used a concoction of egg shells, alum and mercury.
Side effects of being gradually poisoned by mercury include memory loss, irritability and depression, symptoms which the Queen in fact experienced towards the end of her life. Not to mention that the mercury would have likely slowly eaten away at her flesh.
Mercury was also present in her signature red lip stain, made of cinnabar – a toxic mineral that contains the substance.
By this point, there were at least two toxins in the form of mercury and lead causing harm to Elizabeth and her health due to her deadly makeup regime.
Art historian, Sir Roy Strong, coined the term ‘The Mask of Youth’ in the 1970s to describe Queen Elizabeth I’s appearance in portraits in the latter years of her reign.
Many interpret this as a reference to the increasing layers of white makeup worn by women at the Tudor Court.
The mask of youth created a sense of timelessness, at the same time allowing Elizabeth to have control over her image. It was likely propaganda, rather than a reference to the makeup which was the standard of beauty at the time.
It isn’t clear what exactly led to Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it’s been speculated that it could have been cancer or even pneumonia, not to mention her state of ‘deep melancholy’ towards the end of her life as she experienced the deaths of many close friends.
However, the increasingly liberal doses of both lead and mercury is sure to have added to her complex ailments and certainly played a part in her declining health and subsequent death.
Senior Art Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, Sue Prichard, commented: “Elizabeth I was 55 at the time of the failed Armada invasion of England. However in the Armada Portrait, she looks much younger than her 55 years.
“Elizabeth was acutely aware of the importance of maintaining a youthful appearance. Anti-Protestant propaganda portrayed her as a ageing Queen, her body corrupt and unfit for retaining the throne. Elizabeth cultivated her image using a combination of ‘smoke and mirrors’, and ‘paint’, the term used for what we now call cosmetics.
“All the ladies of the court cultivated a pale countenance, it was a sigh of nobility and did not toil in the sun for a living. Various compounds were used to flatter the face, including a white paste made from white lead and vinegar. Cheeks and lips were coloured with another paste made from ceruse, a solid mix of lead carbonate and lead hydroxide and coloured using cochineal.
“Face powders were also used to enhance a pale complexion, made from ground alabaster or plaster of Paris. It is likely Elizabeth started using make up in 1562, after a non-fatal attack of smallpox lead to minor scarring.
“The Armada Portrait is evidence of Elizabeth’s desire to retain her ‘mask of youth’, and as a sign of their continued loyalty, her ladies of the court emulated their Queen. The decision to do so had devastating consequences on their health, but at the end of the day they considered ‘they were worth it’.”
The Armada Portrait commemorates the most famous conflict of Elizabeth I’s reign – the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in the summer of 1588.
This iconic portrait is now back on display to the public in an exhibition featuring all three surviving Armada Portraits are in the Queen’s House, in a free exhibition named Faces of a Queen.
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