Elizabethan makeup

If your partner thinks you take a long time getting made up in the morning, you might like to point to the example of Elizabeth I!

I spent Friday learning all about this lengthy process, with Sally Pointer (www.sallypointer.com), author of The Artifice of Beauty, who has years of experience in reproducing historic cosmetics, for a new series on historical biographies for the History Channel (Canada), being made by Proper TV.

First, we explored how the young Elizabeth I created her image. Wanting to look pure and virginal, she favoured a natural, alabaster look. To make her skin pale, she used the best quality ingredients around, namely, white lead and vinegar. Sally brought real white lead with her – I’m sniffing it here, it smelt awful! – but in the interests of health and safety, we used reproduction lead on our model’s face (an actress and interpreter from Past Pleasures).

Elizabeth I also often used egg white to glaze her face, which helped hide wrinkles and gave her a smooth complexion. It also acted like a Renaissance botox, because it became impossible for her to move her face! It was also quite the thing to paint on blue veins, so as to make the skin look that much more transparent.

Recent research at the National Portrait Gallery has suggested that portraits like the Darnley painting of 1572 don’t show us an accurate picture of Elizabeth I, because the pigments of her rosy cheeks have faded, making her appear more ghostly than she would have been.

Instead, Sally explained that Elizabeth used crushed cochineal bettles for rouge, which was spread over the whole cheek and not just brushed along the cheekbones. The same cochineal was used for the lips. We still use a derivative from cochineal (carminic acid) in our cosmetics.

The Elizabeth look also demanded using lampblack to create dramatic dark eyebrows. The Elizabethans didn’t use mascara (or apparently, kohl), which surprised me, and explains their wide-eyed look.

Of course, Elizabeth’s use of lead did not do her face any favours. It ate into her skin, making it spongy, grey and wrinkled (lead poisoning is also associated with fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, depression, loss of coordination, slurred speech and other delightful symptoms). The only answer: layer on the base more thickly. In later life, therefore, Elizabeth’s appearance was greatly more artificial. Thomas Tuke could have been describing her in his 1616 A Treatise against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women when he wrote that:

‘white lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the divell, the capitall enemie of nature, therwith to transforme humane creatures, of fear, making them ugly, enormious and abominable… a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheeks’.

This is the look being sported by our older Elizabeth model (who is quite beautiful without all this slap, which just goes to show!)

Elizabeth also stepped up her artificiality in the colours used on her cheeks and lips. No more innocent cochineal, now Elizabeth used the garish vermilion, also known as cinnabar, which gave an intense red colour. It also poisoned her because vermilion is mercuric sulphide. Every time Elizabeth licked her lips she ingested this toxic substance. It was the mercury in felt that led to the expression ‘Mad Hatters’. Elizabeth too may have suffered from the litany of symptoms of mercury poisoning: lack of coordination, sensory impairment, personality changes, memory loss, irritability and brain damage. Any of them sound familiar when we come to the older Elizabeth?