Portraits of the Queen: A Powerful Blend of Politics and Imagination over 70 Years

Queen Elizabeth meets, fantastically, across half a thousand years at Jubilee Week on New Bond Street in London.

The first is a face mask, covered with a reddish-brown wig, surrounded by a barbed band, which is a symbol of the sun and its benevolent rays. Her hand on a ball, her gown studded with pearls hardened as a shield, Elizabeth I in the Image of the Armada (1588) is the most famous representation of female power in Western art. Silent, impenetrable, the fixed point of a transformed world, she rules not only the empire but also the elements: ships wounded in stormy seas, to her left, reach victory in the calm waters to her right. But her body disappeared inside a group of symbols.

He sprinkles flashy blocks of lilac and lilac on his silkscreen photos queen rulers Series (1985), Andy Warhol’s Understanding of Icons: The Effective Blend of Instant Recognition of Individual Ignorance. His pop art “Elizabeth II” in candy colors, repeated like postage stamps, flatters and modernizes the royal brand.

Painting of a woman with purple skin and blue hair on a blue background

Silkscreen portrait of Elizabeth II from Andy Warhol’s “Royal Queens” series (1985) © Sotheby’s

At Sotheby’s new attractive and very interesting gallery Power and Image: Royal Portraiture and Icons, Warhol flanks a picture of an armada (exceptionally loaned from Woburn Abbey) on one side. On the other flashes is a hologram of the Queen in white, eyes closed: Chris Levine “The Lightness of Being” (2004/22). It aspires to intimacy, the unconscious moment, but it also really serves as a symbol of light and stillness, of the gleaming gray and white hair and the shiny crown shining like an aura.

Portrait of the Queen, closed-eyed, wearing a tiara and white fur, surrounded by a halo-like halo

Chris Levine “The Lightness of Being” (2004/22) © Sotheby’s

How enduring and inescapable the language of royal mystery is – even for conceptual artists who are favored and sold in Mayfair. Archaeological portrait of Thomas Struth from 2011 here shows Prince Philip, in a little shadow, and the Queen, brilliantly lit, against the vast, receding darkness of Windsor’s baroque green drawing room: a royal aura organized within the formal geometry and effects of Struth’s typical distances, austerity German photographer of monumental buildings and crowds unknown. He was surprised and alarmed by the invitation to Windsor: “Will I be able to say something new about people like that?”

Portrait of an old man and an old woman sitting on a green sofa against the background of a paneled dark room in the shade
The Queen and Prince Philip photographed in the green drawing room at Windsor Castle by Thomas Struth (2011) © Sotheby’s

The Queen is the most photographed monarch in history. More changes have occurred in the creation and dissemination of images – technological and social, from television to Instagram – in her life than in the five centuries that preceded it. Royal portraiture requires conventions, yet it must be innovative and adaptable: things must change in order to stay the same. Neither Struth nor Levine were portrait painters, but their portraits are the Queen’s iconic portraits from the past two decades, and their commissions reveal a media savvy in the palace. Warhol, whose disparagement revitalized the entire genre of royal portraiture, was not commissioned, but the Royal Collection was able in 2012 to acquire a quartet of “ruling queens.”

Managing portraits has been a business of the monarchy since the inception of the monarchy. The Tudors, Stuarts and Georgians had the best performers: Holbein, Van Dyck and Thomas Lawrence. Europe had the same genius’ loyalty to power: Titian and Velázques painted the Habsburgs and Goyas the Bourbons. In the late nineteenth century, the emergence of the contested avant-garde upset that fine balance of power serving art. The portrait painter of Napoleon III was not Manet, the painter of the radical figures of the era, but the tamed painter Franz Winterhalter, who was also lured to Britain by Prince Albert. At this point, royal portraiture ceased to be a sophisticated canvas.

Sotheby’s is offering “Queen Victoria” by court favorite George Hayter. The emblems – coronation robe, state crown, red velvet draping – were as expected, but the grand style became stylized blank. Created in 1838 by Madame Tussauds, this canvas is a key moment in the promotion of the royal portrait. In a democratic age, when the king no longer ruled but was merely a king, divination, the remnants of true power, flourished. A constitutional monarchy needs to be captivated—hence the absurd and essential rituals of show and formalities, reaching vast audiences via mechanical means of reproduction.

In Hiroshi Sugimoto’s disturbing “Queen Elizabeth II” (1999), what appears to be an image of a living human is a wax statue of Madame Tussauds, similar to other images – an image removed three times from the subject itself.

Black and white portrait of a middle-aged woman in a bejeweled dress, gloves, large sash, and tiara.  It looks real but it's not real enough

“Elizabeth II” (1999) by Hiroshi Sugimoto © Hiroshi Sugimoto, Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery

Sugimoto is one of 65 images chosen from a thousand in the National Portrait Gallery London’s collection to reveal the story of the Queen’s portraits in the NPG’s delightful new volume, Elizabeth II: princess, queen, icon. The consistency of the self-presentation is astounding: at age three, in Marcus Adam’s studio portrait, she’s composed and riveted upright, calm and stoic—and already wearing a string of pearls.

Weeks into her accession to the throne, Dorothy Wilding’s portraits of the fairytale princess are just a young queen with chiseled features and draped hair in a Norman Hartnell gown – the image reproduced for decades on stamps and coins. It is direct, but not naive: the hand-colored examples especially foreshadow the balance between naturalness and resourcefulness that is repeated throughout later iconography.

Sepia color photograph of a woman, with lighter crown and half-exposed shoulders

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

Meanwhile, postmodern glamor is being recast as campy—excessive, self-deprecating. Cecil Beaton upends the tradition of the established coronation portrait by placing the Queen against a painted background of the fan-vaulted ceiling at the Chapel of Our Lady of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey. Peyton lays illusions and proclaims formality as a play – a wonderful game.

A woman in full crown and robes in front of a cathedral background

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

Without fun, royal grandeur fades into low-key Hollywood: Annie Leibovitz’s melodramatic show from 2007 looks rude. Spelling and Simulacra – Spitting image and later Claire Foy and Olivia Colman in the crown It messed up our reactions to realism. Rarely will a photographer delight in nature in your face. David Bailey’s 2014 close-up portrait of the 88-year-old Queen with sapphire jewelry, sapphire dress, sapphire eyes, “very cute eyes with mischievous sparkles”, pulls it off: a portrait of life well lived – resilience, humour, wisdom.

For press reporting, the camera beats the brush: the image of the Queen is loved through photographs. Much of the eccentric horror or realistic illustrator has given modern royal paintings a bad reputation. But it’s not the end of the game: the ancient relationship of ownership and painting remains at best subtle, rewarding, and revealing.

The chance to be a part of that history tempted Lucian Freud into years of negotiations to paint the queen. His brutal little 2001 portrait of wrinkled skin, clenched lips, a rocky stare, and expressions of fortitude and loyalty depicted with resignation and fatigue, is the greatest royal painting of a century. The diadem, splendidly dyed, of great weight, makes ordinary old age extraordinary: uncomfortable lies to the head that wears the crown.

The NPG volume spawns two graphic queens, each intriguing, interacting with tradition – the kind of fun and questionable figurative painting that has unfortunately been left out of the conversation in concept bastions like Tate. Pietro Anegoni’s sad life-size 1969 portrait of the Queen in red robes, secluded in a bleak abstract landscape, follows Renaissance paradigms and indicates a loneliness in her role.

Full size portrait of a woman wearing a formal long red dress

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

Meanwhile, in Buckingham Palace’s white drawing room, John Wonakott’s fluent, 12-foot “Royal Family: A Centennial Portrait” (2000), also looking back, is painted by John Lavery’s 1913 Royal Collection in the same interior. A lyrical, comedic nacott, the ornately gilded ocean plays against contemporary and casual dress – lean William, Harry climbs up on the sofa. In the foreground, corgis, getting in their way, are about to be kicked out of the picture.

Colorful painting of the royal family assembled (plus corgi) in comfortable poses, but in the vicinity of the Grand Palace

“The Royal Family: A Centennial Portrait” by John Wonakott (2000) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Can fashion and wealth, the two inevitable components of royal images, correspond to today’s postcolonial politics? Yes, Sotheby’s says: Her trophy is the Queen’s latest painting, commissioned for Tatler magazine this month by Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi. In a superior performance of brush and color—a vibrant yellow floor and the flake of a blue-green plaid dress—Umofimi bases his image on an image from around the time of the young queen’s 1956 visit to Nigeria. The flat planes, and crisp outlines are reminiscent of Warhol’s, but there’s a devastating innovation: This queen has jet-black hair, an ombre photo-pop trademark of black hues.

Young woman in a bright flat floral dress with black hair against a bright yellow background

The Queen (2022) directed by Oluwole Omofemi © Sotheby’s

“Poetry represents the strength of a woman,” said Omovimi. “I use poetry as a symbol of freedom . . . to tell blacks to accept who they are.” The elegant black halo, which uses hair as a symbol of strength, dates back to Elizabeth I’s wig in the Armada portrait. This photo was taken at the dawn of the colonial invasion of England. Omofemi’s post-colonial portrait emphasizes the black painter’s freedom to recreate a white icon in his image.

Walking a tightrope between accessibility and remoteness, the royal portrait depicts a king we identify with yet mysteriously remains someone else. Omofemi’s is the current image. Its fusion of politics and fantasy is the bargain that underlies all the art of royalty.

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