Carl Curnutte of the Elizabeth Gardens holds the painting of the “Virgin Queen.” Photo courtesy Nancy Wright Beasley
I can't believe I was crazy enough to drive almost 200 miles one way to view the portrait of an ugly old lady and ride in an oxcart.
The unflattering portrait of Queen Elizabeth I had been hanging at the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, N.C., since the early 1950s — until recently.
"Some people say it's ugly; I say, ‘It takes my breath away,' " muses Carl Curnutte, executive director of the gardens. "Queen Elizabeth guarded her image carefully, stuffing her mouth with rags to hide her missing teeth for other portraits. In this one, she is older, has sunken cheeks and wears little makeup, which makes it unique."
In 1984, the portrait was valued at $50,000. This spring, it was assessed at $1 million, sending shock waves through the community. The unsigned 16th-century painting is being stored in the National Park Service's archives building at the Fort Raleigh historical site, where I got a peek at it. It will be on display again at the gardens on Aug. 18, the 426th birthday of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in America. Ruth Cannon, one of the originators of the Elizabethan Gardens, bought the portrait in New York and gave it to the gardens, which are named for the "Virgin Queen" who bankrolled the voyage to Roanoke Island in 1587. The fate of the 114 individuals has been immortalized by the outdoor drama The Lost Colony since 1937.
"When I was the producer of The Lost Colony, we did an exhibit at the North Carolina History Museum about the Lost Colony in 2007," Curnutte says. "The queen's portrait was displayed, along with the paintings of John White, sent from the British Museum in London." White was the governor of the ill-fated colony and the grandfather of Virginia Dare. He went back to England for supplies but could not garner finances to return for three years. Upon arrival, he discovered only the word "Croatan" carved into a tree.
In 2010, East Carolina University history professor Larry Tise performed an in-depth study of the portrait and suggested that it be displayed at Washington, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library, which was hosting an exhibit on 16th-century Ireland. (After his return trip to Roanoke Island, White lived out his life in his native Ireland.)
In 2013, NBC learned of the portrait, resulting in Episode 106 of Treasure Detectives, which aired in April. "Curtis Dowling, a fine-art collector and world-renowned expert, was here for the filming," Curnutte says. "He declared the portrait an original and said it was worth at least $1 million.
"Traditionally, the [Elizabethan Gardens] holds a big celebration on Aug. 18. This year, the portrait will be displayed [from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.]. There will be a lecture series and birthday cake. The Lost Colony holds a daylong fair as well," Curnutte adds. "This is Virginia Dare's 426th birthday, so the entrance fee that day will be $4.26." Curnutte chuckles and adds, "My employees will hate counting all those pennies." The portrait may eventually garner some serious coin for the Elizabethan Gardens, since that governing board is considering selling it, and might help the gardens live in perpetuity. In the meantime, the portrait's value presents huge storage and security issues.
If you visit that weekend, you may also want to stop by Island Farm, a living history site on Roanoke Island that opened in 2010. From Wednesday to Saturday, Charlie the ox pulls a wagon loaded with visitors, giving them a bird's-eye view of farm life in the mid-19th century. The centerpiece of the farm, about a mile from the Elizabethan Gardens, is a house built around 1845 by Adam Etheridge.
Gene Staples, a graduate of Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County, and his wife, Charlene, live at the site, along with their daughter, Megan. The only full-time employees, they look after Charlie, along with five sheep, one heifer, two Corolla rescue horses and 12 chickens, when they're not demonstrating gardening, blacksmithing, sheep shearing, wool spinning, cooking or washing clothes in a tub over an open fire.
"Manteo is famous for the Lost Colony. However, it's families like the Etheridges, who learned how to work with the land, survive malaria and succeed, who made this region," Charlene says.
My visit there yielded another discovery: Richard Etheridge, a slave child fathered by one of the Etheridge men, fought for the Union Army and eventually returned to farm some of the property. He became a surfman in the U.S. Lifesaving Service at Bodie Island and was the first African-American to be named head keeper of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station, which was manned by the country's only all-black crew. In 2010, a statue of Richard Etheridge was erected in Manteo near the original cookhouse of the lifesaving station, which was relocated there from Hatteras Island. A reunion of the crew's descendants — and a seafood festival — are set for October.
On second thought, I just might make that trip again.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2013. All rights reserved.