The Power behind the Pearl by Dana MacMillan
This article will focus on two sixteenth-century portraits of powerful men adorned with pearls, with both works connected by patronage and the ambitions of the Tudor court. The 1588 portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh, in which the privateer, poet, and courtier wears a large pearl earring, will be shown to relate to his status at court and his wider aspirations. The contemporary portrait of an Algonquin chief, ‘A werowance or great Lorde of Virginia’, who wears a pearl earring and necklaces, forms part of the historic visual documentation of the 1585 expedition sent by Walter Ralegh to colonise Virginia in North America. Taking a biographical approach to ‘the pearl’ whose inherent significance is central to both portraits, a lens will be cast on the Elizabethan project to colonise and settle the New World, with pearls used as ‘symbolic weapons’ in the war against the rival Spanish powers.