The Queen’s portraits: a potent mixture of politics and fantasy across 70 years

Two Queen Elizabeths meet, fantastically, across half a millennium in jubilee week on London’s New Bond Street.

The first is a mask-face, encased by an auburn wig, encircled by a spiky lace ruff, an allegory for the sun and its benevolent rays. Her dela hand dela on a globe, her dela boned, pearl-studded gown stiff as armour, Elizabeth I in the Armada portrait (1588) is the most famous representation of female power in western art. Serene, impenetrable, the still point of a turning world, she commands not only empire but the elements: buffeted ships on stormy seas, to her left dela, reach victory in calm waters on her right dela. But her own body has vanished within a panoply of symbols.

Splashing gaudy blocks of lilac and purple across silk-screened photographs in his Reigning Queens series (1985), Andy Warhol understood icons: the potent mix of instant recognition with individual unknowability. His pop art of his “Elizabeth II” in candy colours, repeated like postage stamps, flatters and updates the royal brand.

A silk-screen portrait of Elizabeth II from Andy Warhol’s ‘Reigning Queens’ series (1985) © Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s seductive, immensely entertaining new exhibition Power & Image: Royal Portraiture & Iconography, Warhol flanks the Armada portrait (exceptionally loaned from Woburn Abbey) on one side. On the other shimmers a hologram of the Queen in white ermine, eyes closed: Chris Levine’s “Lightness of Being” (2004/22). It aspires to intimacy, the off-guard moment, but it too really works as an emblem of light and stillness, the luminous grey-white hair and pearl-spangled tiara shining like a halo.

A portrait of the Queen with eyes closed, wearing crown and white furs, and surrounded by a halo-like glow

Chris Levine’s ‘Lightness of Being’ (2004/22) © Sotheby’s

How enduring and inescapable the language of royal mystique is — even for the conceptualist artists favored and sold in Mayfair. Thomas Struth’s monumental photograph from 2011 here has Prince Philip, slightly in shadow, and the Queen, brilliantly spotlit, against the vast, receding darkness of Windsor’s baroque Green Drawing Room: royal aura staged within the formal geometry and distancing effects typical of Struth, austere German photographer of colossal buildings and anonymous crowds. He was astonished and unnerved by the invitation to Windsor: “Would I be able to say something new about people like this?”

A portrait of an old man and an old woman, seated on a green sofa against a backdrop of a dark, paneled room in shadow
The Queen and Prince Philip photographed in Windsor Castle’s Green Drawing Room by Thomas Struth (2011) © Sotheby’s

The Queen is the most depicted monarch in history. More changes in creating and disseminating images — technological and social, from television to Instagram — have happened in her lifetime than in the five centuries before it. Royal portraiture demands conventions, yet must be inventive, adaptable: things have to change in order to stay the same. Neither Struth nor Levine are portraitists, but theirs are the standout portraits of the Queen from the past two decades, and their commissions reveal media savvy at the palace. Warhol, whose irreverence reinvigorated the whole genre of royal portraiture, wasn’t commissioned, but the Royal Collection caught up, in 2012 acquiring a quartet of “Reigning Queens”.

Image management has been the business of monarchy since monarchy began. Tudors, Stuarts and Georgians got the best artists: Holbein, Van Dyck, Thomas Lawrence. Europe had the same allegiance of genius to power: Titian and Velázquez painted the Habsburgs, Goya the Bourbons. In the later 19th century, the rise of a contested avant-garde upset that fine balance of art serving authority. Napoleon III’s portraitist was not Manet, the era’s radical figure painter, but the tame Franz Winterhalter, also lured to Britain by Prince Albert. At this point royal portraiture ceased to be cutting-edge painting.

Sotheby’s is showing “Queen Victoria” by another court favourite, George Hayter. The regalia — coronation robe, state crown, red velvet draping — are as expected, but the grand manner has become empty bombat. This canvas was commissioned in 1838 by Madame Tussauds, a key moment in popularizing the royal image. In a democratic age, when the monarch no longer ruled but merely reigned, pageantry, the leftover from real power, thrived. A constitutional monarchy needs to enthral — thus the absurd yet essential rituals of display and formality, reaching vast audiences via means of mechanical reproduction.

In Hiroshi Sugimoto’s disconcerting “Queen Elizabeth II” (1999), what appears to be a photograph of a living human being is a wax mannequin from Madame Tussauds, modeled from other photographs — a portrait three times removed from the subject herself.

Black and white photograph of a middle-aged woman wearing a bejeweled dress, gloves, large sash and tiara.  It looks real but not quite real enough

‘Elizabeth II’ (1999) by Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

Sugimoto’s is one of 65 images chosen from a thousand depictions in London’s National Portrait Gallery collection to unfold the story of the Queen’s portraits in the NPG’s delightful new volume, Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon. The consistency of self-presentation is astounding: aged three, in Marcus Adam’s studio picture, she is composed, bolt upright, calm, watchful — and already wears a string of pearls.

Taken weeks after accession to the throne, Dorothy Wilding’s photographs of the fairytale princess just become queen star a young woman with chiselled features and coiled hair posed in a Norman Hartnell gown — the image reproduced for decades on stamps and coinage. They are straightforward, but not naive: the hand-coloured examples especially herald the equilibrium between naturalism and artifice recurring throughout the subsequent iconography.

A sepia-tinted photo-portrait of a woman, with a lighter crown and half-bared shoulders

Dorothy Wilding’s photograph of the Queen taken weeks after her accession (1952) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Glamour, meanwhile, is recast in a postmodern age as camp — excessive, self-mocking. Cecil Beaton upends static coronation portrait conventions by placing the Queen against a painted backdrop of the fan-vaulted ceiling in Henry VII’s Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Beaton layers illusions, declare formality as theatricality — a fabulous game.

A woman in full regalia of crown and robes, against a cathedral backdrop

Cecil Beaton’s coronation portrait of the Queen (1953) © National Portrait Gallery, London/V&A Images

Without playfulness, royal grandeur dulls into Hollywood kitsch: Annie Leibovitz’s melodramatic presentation from 2007 looks crass. Satire and simulacra — Spitting Image and later Claire Foy and Olivia Colman in The Crown — have wreaked havoc with our responses to realism. Only rarely does a photographer thrill with in-your-face naturalism. David Bailey’s 2014 close-up of the 88-year-old Queen with sapphire jewels, sapphire dress, sapphire eyes, “very kind eyes with a mischievous glint”, pulls it off: a portrait of life well lived — resilience, humour, wisdom .

For reportage, the camera has vanquished the brush: the Queen’s image is beloved through photographs. Too many whimsical or photorealist horrors have given modern royal paintings a terrible reputation. But it’s not end-game: monarchy and painting’s age-old relationship remains at best subtle, rewarding and revealing.

The chance to be part of that history enticed Lucian Freud into years of negotiation to paint the Queen. His tiny brutal portrait from 2001 of crumpled skin, tight lips, flinty stare, expression of fortitude and dutifulness shot through with resignation and weariness, is the greatest royal painting in a century. The diadem, exquisitely painted, impasto-weighty, makes ordinary old age extraordinary: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

The NPG volume singles out two painted queens, each intriguing, engaging with tradition — the sort of pleasurable, questioning figurative painting sadly excluded from the conversation at conceptual bastions such as Tate. Pietro Annigoni’s melancholy life-size tempera portrait from 1969 of the Queen in red robes, solitary in a gloomy abstracted landscape, follows Renaissance models and refers to the loneliness of her role ela.

A full-length portrait of a woman wearing long red formal robes

A life-size portrait of the Queen by Pietro Annigoni (1969) © Ed Lyon/National Portrait Gallery, London

Meanwhile, set in Buckingham Palace’s White Drawing Room, John Wonnacott’s fluent, loosely painted 12-footer “The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait” (2000), also looks back, to John Lavery’s 1913 royal group in the same interior. Wonnacott is lyrical, comic, playing the ornately gilded surrounding against contemporary dress and informality — lanky William, Harry clambering over a sofa. In the foreground the corgis, getting in the way, are about to be kicked out of the picture.

A colorful painting of the assembled royal family (plus corgis) in relaxed poses, but in a grand palace setting

‘The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait’ by John Wonnacott (2000) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Can fashion and wealth, inevitable ingredients of royal portraits, dovetail with today’s postcolonial politics? Yes, says Sotheby’s: its trophy is the newest painting of the Queen, commissioned for this month’s Tatler magazine from Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi. In a virtuoso performance of brushwork and color — vibrant yellow ground a foil for blue-green patterned frock — Omofemi bases his portrait on a photograph from around the time of the young Queen’s 1956 visit to Nigeria. Flat planes, clear outlines recall Warhol, but there is a disruptive innovation: this Queen has jet black hair, trademark of Omofemi’s pop portraits of black figures.

A young woman in a bright flat floral dress with black hair against a vivid yellow background

Oluwole Omofemi’s ‘The Queen’ (2022) © Sotheby’s

“Hair represents the power of the woman,” Omofemi has said. “I use hair as a metaphor for freedom. . . to tell black people to accept who they are.” The elegant black halo, employing hair as a symbol of strength, looks back to Elizabeth I’s wig in the Armada portrait. That picture was made at the dawn of England’s colonial conquest. Omofemi’s postcolonial portrait asserts a black painter’s freedom to remake a white icon in his image.

Royal portraiture walks a tightrope between accessibility and remoteness, depicting a monarch with whom we identify yet who remains mysteriously other. Omofemi’s is the picture for the moment; its fusion of politics and fantasy is the bargain underpinning all art of royalty.

follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: