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Jo'Burg Days: The Last Fitting

…Approaching quietly, the hairdresser bent his knee in the traditional salute, then asked her requirements. ‘Straight back from the forehead, a bunch of curls above, and ringlets dropping from ears to shoulders,’ came the reply. He deftly removed the pins and clips and gently brushed the tangle of dusty tresses. ‘Scurvy varmint,’” hitting him with her fan, ‘“Stop pulling and torturing me. Do as you are told, I’m not easily fooled by your antics; follow my instructions!’ …

The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth, Gloriana, is being readied to have her portrait painted – a portrait which could turn the course of European history. Barbara Durlacher writes as though she was a witness to the event.

The room was dark, lit only by the ogee windows, the apertures of the sinuous opposing S shapes barely illuminating the gloom. A comfortable wood fire burned in the grate, but the further recesses were chilly, the stone floors reflecting the ancient castle’s cold. Velvet and taffeta dressed ladies sat on the hard benches awaiting her arrival.

The distant voices and scurrying feet announced her approach. Flinging open the double doors, the heralds announced, “Her Majesty the Queen!” and en masse the ladies sank to the floor in the deepest of curtsies, their beautiful, heavy gowns rustling as they moved.

Recognising her, two bright parakeets swooped to perch on her shoulders. Idly, her mind elsewhere, she fed them with sugar pellets and bread. Preening their colourful plumage they settled quietly into their accustomed places, accustomed to her moods.

Approaching quietly, the hairdresser bent his knee in the traditional salute, then asked her requirements. ‘Straight back from the forehead, a bunch of curls above, and ringlets dropping from ears to shoulders,’ came the reply. He deftly removed the pins and clips and gently brushed the tangle of dusty tresses. ‘Scurvy varmint,’” hitting him with her fan, ‘“Stop pulling and torturing me. Do as you are told, I’m not easily fooled by your antics; follow my instructions!’

Hours of dedicated tending followed. Bright red curls emerged from the tangle, with ringlets to the shoulders. Then her face was gently cleansed. White lead was applied. Thinly pencilled eyebrows were etched in place and rosebud mouth outlined; as a final touch the cheeks were lightly rubbed with the new French rouge. The face emerged newly born from the ruin of the old.

Then, the men were ushered from the chamber and the new gown was reverently brought forth. Shimmering in all its splendour, resplendent in purple and gold, pearl encrusted, crystals outlining the folds, its magnificence was a marvel to behold. The heavy skirts were carefully draped over her sparse frame. The thick reinforced bodice was laced up the back, the thin sagging breasts, padded and rouged into a youthful fullness, were carefully squeezed into position. Then the time came for the final addition.

The Ruff!

Two ladies entered, carefully carrying the magnificent ruff between them. Sparkling with diamonds and pearls the points of stiffened lace glimmered in the candlelight, the delicacy of the workmanship contrasting sharply with the artificial beauty of the woman who would wear it. Deftly fastening it around her neck and shoulders, they stepped back to survey their handiwork.

“My Lady, he is here.” The man was announced. Nicholas Hilliard, the famous portraitist had arrived on another of his commissions to paint the greatest woman in England, the woman at whose whim everything could be changed, who could command armies, fleets of ships, courtiers and kings. His commission today was to paint a picture for the King of France. A picture which would show the King his prospective bride. She was the woman who commanded all England, Scotland and the Western Isles; the Virgin Queen, Gloriana and who now, making up her mind after twenty years of refusal, had finally decided to marry.

The portrait must show her at her best, must flatter her and eliminate all signs of ageing. The King of France must not learn that she was past child-bearing age, nor must he learn that her hair was grey, her skin wrinkled and dull, her former slim figure scrawny and old, never having known the loving touch of a man.

Silently, she practised moving. The width and heaviness of the ruff made it difficult to turn, she had to gauge her movements carefully so as not to overbalance. Despite the exhaustion caused by the weight of the garments and the long hours of preparation she must not stagger. Others must not know how the days dragged, and how tired she became as the years passed. There would be no more suitors if they suspected that she could no longer stand the rigors of office.

But Hilliard would do it, from the figure standing before him he would create the magnificence she wanted. He would portray the creamy skin lit by the shining lace ruffles, the sparkling jewels would echo the light in her hair and eyes and when the British Ambassador returned with his answer, she would be in a position to decide whether she would proceed with her plan, to dominate 16th century Europe by a skilful political marriage and reduce the threat to the state. Or perhaps she might refuse him again and remain undoubted ruler of her own domains despite the threats and uncertainties on all sides.

It all depended on The Ruff!

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