Monarchy has always been about soft as well as hard power, a PR exercise as much as a military one. As such, portraits have been at the heart of royal campaigns since Julius Caesar first donned his strategically placed laurels – and until very recently indeed, representing a noble sitter faithfully was the last thing a court-appointed artist intended to do.
On the contrary: throughout the ages kings and queens have used idealised images of themselves to bolster the national consensus underpinning their position.
Whether it’s projecting stony-faced righteousness or simulated informality, rare is the royal portrait that hasn’t been formulated to exacting standards – after all, each is another chapter in a national myth, and thrones are too precious to risk going off script.
As the balance of power has shifted from palaces to Parliament, attitudes such as these have largely relaxed. Nonetheless, over her 70 years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II has understood as well as anyone the importance of being pictured just so. Since being crowned in 1953, images of her have have been central to our shifting (and sometimes stubborn) ideas about power and how to represent it – irreverently, or reverentially? With historical techniques, or with up-to-the-minute media?
On the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we take a look at 10 of her most telling portraits – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Regent, Pietro Annigoni, 1955
When Queen Elizabeth was crowned, the world was a wildly different place. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that Pietro Annigoni’s painting feels like an artefact of a bygone era but that’s as much by design as by accident. With a composition reminiscent of Renaissance portraiture, Annigoni’s young queen looks remote and pensive as she presides over the wild, cold landscape behind her. Criticised at the time for its focus on her role as monarch rather than offering a more human side, Annigoni’s portrait cemented Elizabeth’s authority by positioning her within a visual legacy stretching back hundreds of years.
The Definitive, Arthur Machin, 1967
If official imagery helps to mythologise a monarch, Arthur Machin did more to epitomise the idea of Queen Elizabeth than any other artist. Commissioned by the Stamp Advisory Committee, Arthur Machin developed his profile of the Queen in 1967. Known as the “definitive” in philately circles, it has since been reproduced more than 220 billion times and is still used on stamps today. As president of the Royal Philatelic Society London, Peter Cockburn told the BBC: “It is said that this image is the most used image that the world has ever seen.”
Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom,
Andy Warhol, 1985
Part of his series Reigning Queens, featuring female monarchs from Queen Margrethe II of Denmark to Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland, Andy Warhol’s Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom undoubtedly marks a leap into more contemporary portraiture – though still the picture has more in common with Machin’s than it might first appear. Warhol was fascinated by mass-produced imagery, and his queens were based on their official state portraits – which often featured on currency and stamps, too. Queen Elizabeth herself seemed to approve: celebrating 60 years on the throne in 2012, she added four of Warhol’s portraits to the royal collection.
Queen Elizabeth II,
Michael Leonard, 1985-6
Rather more flattering than Warhol’s but no less glaringly of its time, Michael Leonard’s 1986 Queen Elizabeth II inflects her with an almost cartoonish buoyancy. Sporting a sunshine-yellow suit and cuddled up faux informally with one of her trademark corgis, this Queen – painted to mark her 60th birthday – smiles blithely out at her viewer, altogether less sombre (but despite initial appearances, no less remote) than most comparable portraits.
HM Queen Elizabeth II, Lucian Freud, 2001
Lucian Freud’s portrait, painted over 18 months, subverts every expectation of royal portraiture, from scale to composition. Just eight inches high, focusing only on her face, Freud’s 2001 Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t just feel human – she feels frail, fractious, fallible. While her diamond diadem might seem like a nod to tradition, even that mark of wealth and heritage seems undermined in Freud’s hands. Here, the headwear looks weighty, hyperreal against the striking ordinariness of the face below it: rarely has the phrase “heavy is the head that wears the crown” rung quite as true.
Queen Elizabeth II,
Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, 2002
The first black artist to be commissioned to paint the Queen, Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy made a portrait of Elizabeth that offers insight into the British monarchy’s global impact as well as its national significance. Made to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, Chukwuogo-Roy’s composition situates landmarks from Commonwealth countries – India’s Taj Mahal, Australia’s Sydney Opera House, Jamaica’s Montego Bay – in fantastical proximity beneath a technicolour sky. And while the sun casting such amazing colours could reasonably be rising, it’s hard not to read the splashes of orange and purple as a sunset instead – a “goodnight” to a dwindling empire.
HM Queen, White Drawing Room, Buckingham Palace, Annie Leibovitz, 2007
The inimitable Annie Leibovitz was the first American to make an official portrait of the Queen when she took her photo in 2007. Best known for snapping rock stars, actors and other A-listers, Leibovitz found fertile ground in Buckingham Palace’s dramatic lighting and opulent interiors. Riffing on historic royal portraits, particularly those of Cecil Beaton, Leibovitz’s lens conveys an earnestness that her British contemporaries had long discarded: “I felt honoured,” said Leibovitz. “I also felt that because I was an American, I had an advantage over every other photographer or painter who had made a portrait of her. It was OK for me to be reverent.”
The Queen (William Hill), Alison Jackson, 2010
Speaking of English irony – while The Queen (William Hill) isn’t a portrait per se, artist Alison Jackson’s playful photograph depicting the Queen outside a betting shop arguably says more about the nation’s attitude to its monarchy than an official commission ever could. And to give credit where credit’s due, the image tells us something about the Queen as well as her subjects – Elizabeth’s love of horses is well known, and who can resist a flutter on race day?
Icon, Dan Llywelyn Hall, 2013
Of course, some artists find themselves causing offence even with the best of intentions. When Dan Llywelyn Hall unveiled Icon in 2013, commissioned by the Royal Welsh Rugby Union to celebrate 60 years since the coronation, pearls were clutched by royalists around the world who declared Hall’s portrait of the Queen unflattering and even frightening. Not to be deterred, Hall produced a second painting. Based on the same sitting as the first and depicting the Queen in the same outfit (though from a slightly different angle), Hall maintains that The Enduring Monarch, 2016 makes “a different statement”.
The Stonehenge tribute, 2022
As Jubilee weekend approaches, there’s been no shortage of questionable tributes to the Queen – but surely none so unhinged as English Heritage’s, in which photos of HRH are projected on to Stonehenge like something from a lost episode of Chris Morris’s satire Brass Eye. The 4,500-year-old monument was first lit up in 2020 to celebrate “unsung champions of heritage” who kept community and art projects open despite the coronavirus crisis. I’m not a historian, but I’ll bet that neither was what the ancient Britons had in mind when they erected their mysterious stone circles.
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