Unique is a dreadfully overused word but I can’t recall anything else that comes close to resembling Mask Of Youth, artist Mat Collishaw’s animatronic face of Elizabeth I which will face down her glorious Armada portrait in the Queen’s House for the next few months. Her glistening eyes follow the viewer as well as gazing at her own portrait, a spectacular propaganda piece depicting the ageing 55-year-old monarch as a vibrant, potent, decisive young woman. From time to time her lips part to reveal discoloured and missing teeth. Tiny hairs – from squirrels, apparently – sprout from blue-veined, scuffed skin. But the blemishes cannot hide the face’s imperiousness. The eyes are darkly and impassively authoritarian and her mouth often seems to twist in what Shelley memorably called a sneer of cold command. You are left in no doubt that you are as nothing compared with the Faerie Queen.
Put simply, Collishaw’s installation is magnificent, capturing both the loneliness and lure of power and encapsulating the myth that sustains Britannia to this day. In a post-truth, possibly post-Brexit world, this is art at its most relevant and coruscating. I urge you to see it. And while you’re there, walk across the hall and look at seven photographs of seven 18-year-old pupils from local Thomas Tallis School which have been printed and framed by German artist Bettina von Zwehl as if they are 17th century miniatures in the style of Nicholas Hilliard. They hang in a room of small portraits of royal children which were painted to be sent to foreign courts seeking marriage alliances with Britain.
But unlike the little princes and princess, these 21st century youngsters are not monarchical commodities – they are classless individuals free to make their own choices. The display may be tiny but it‘s awash with life-affirming power.