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Duty over disclosure

In sitting for so many portraits, the Queen has learned to turn her public face into an inscrutable

If we close our eyes and think of the Queen, it is usually in one of two attitudes: either waving or frowning. Over the nearly 60 years of her reign, she has successfully narrowed down the public faces she wears to the two most serviceable countenances, one for ribbon-cutting and walkabout, and the other for speech-making and mourning.

Though Elizabeth Windsor has perhaps the most frequently depicted features in all history, she remains practically faceless. In order to suggest an interior existence, or at least establish a sense of a gap between public and private character, documentaries and films about the monarch have almost universally dwelled on her sitting for portraits, allowing us, in theory, to witness the resolute image in the making. Even as her likeness is captured, however, she has tended to look like a head of state; it is as if habit had hardened somewhere within her to resist the idea of her ever being a subject.

Does this trouble her? The volume and variety of artists to whom she has given her time suggest that, on some level, it might. Monarchs have invariably seen the obvious benefits of creating a public image. None, however, has approached the task as compulsively and with as little attempt at control as this one. The original impulse was no doubt rooted in the usual motivation of the Crown to engrave its regal power on the imagination - witness Pietro Annigoni's 1954 image that was despatched to the coinage and postal services of the empire's four corners - but the almost addictive approach to depiction that the Queen has adopted over the years begins to suggest a different motivation: one of self-discovery. How else, you wonder, might she gain an honest impression of how she is viewed intimately? How else, when life is so much the public performance of duty, can she begin to understand who she might be, and how she might look, underneath it all?

Perhaps, for the little girl in whom responsibility was so ingrained that she would routinely get up at three in the morning to double-check that her shoes were clean, the chance to see herself as others see her has become the perfect surreality check. In Alan Bennett's Uncommon Reader, the Queen is imagined stumbling across literature, to much the same effect. "I think I may be turning into a human being," she suggests, after losing herself in Henry James. "I am not sure this is an altogether welcome development."

Looking at the collection of 60 of the more re­vealing images of the Queen that will tour the four capitals of the Union in the lead-up to her diamond jubilee in 2012 and the months beyond, it is hard to resist this almost devolved or outsourced sense of personal growth - the determined stripping away of regality that she has subconsciously or not entrusted to artists. Organised by the London National Portrait Gallery, the portraits will set out in Edinburgh in June and, having taken in Belfast and Cardiff, end up back in London next May. They offer a cumulative representation of both the Queen's great virtue - her uncanny ability to play the part of a symbol unaltered by time - and her secret vice: that she, too, might against all odds have a singular little life known only to herself.

In this latter regard, the most powerful of the images, and the most shocking, even, is Chris Levine's 2004 holographic portrait of the Queen with her eyes closed. We are so used to seeing those eyes gazing into the middle distance, or to the furthest edges of the Commonwealth, or blinking during a Christmas Day speech, that to see them momentarily turned inward is to appreciate, suddenly, the monumental weirdness of the royal life - the extent to which the Queen has suppressed, through several me-generations, her own interiority.

Recalling the shoot, Levine gave some insight into how the moment was conjured. "I had assumed that there would be committees dealing with what had to be put into the image: props or iconography or costumes," he said, "but they asked me what I wanted her to wear, so I got the opportunity to style the Queen. I looked at the Crown jewels and picked out a simple, clean crown with a cross."

Because he was creating a holograph, the exposures were long - eight seconds each - and he asked the Queen to rest between shots. In one of these pauses he mentioned that meditation had been a profound influence on his life, that he had lately taken to going off on ten-day silent retreats, "and she was very interested".

Levine tried to time the exposures around the Queen's breathing, in order to help her relax, and eventually his picture "was a moment of stillness that just happened". It is the clearest public, contemporary expression of what we might imagine is always the most uncertain of the royal territories: the inner realm.

So unknowable, so unlikely is this place, that many of the Queen's artists have not even attempted to suggest it. Annigoni had styled himself as the very last of the great Catholic iconographers in the Renaissance tradition when he was commissioned to take the Queen's portrait, and his depiction of the young monarch in velvet robes against an Italianate backdrop was a suitable blend of propaganda and spiritual mythology. The painting almost demanded subversion, and over the past half-century it has received its fair share.

Hew Locke notes that, as a child growing up in Guyana, even long after independence, there was a version of Annigoni's image stamped on his school textbooks. Locke was disciplined for defacing it with a beard and spectacles. In adult life, he has continued to deface, or to comment on, the power of that image, creating voodoo doll heads of Elizabeth, or drawing on Yoruba talismans and the decorative mysticism of Nig­erian textiles to depict the near-primeval force of that silhouette. The touring show will include one of his images of the Queen as Medusa, with a shampoo-and-set of serpents' heads.

It is notable that those artists who have never by accident of birth fallen under the Queen's power have far less impacted emotional responses to her. Gerhard Richter, the great German photorealist, made her the vaguest of abstracts in a ghostly 1966 image that utilised the dissolving grain of a press photo to suggest her essence as a blank canvas. Eve Arnold achieved the feat of making Liz look carefree: sheltering under an umbrella, laughing up at a huge blank sky. Surprisingly, Andy Warhol did not take her on as a silkscreen until 1984, when the blandest of her images became a Factory reproduction, displayed alongside that of the Queen of Swaziland.

As the Sex Pistols proved, the very ubiquity of Elizabeth's conventional image allows it to resist almost all efforts to destroy it. More interesting republican sentiments seem to dwell in the portraits that look hardest at their subject, forcing on us a new way of seeing the monarch. Of all the 60 representations of her in the exhibition, the portrait I would most like to know her opinion of is the one made by Lucian Freud for the golden jubilee a decade ago.

The Queen sat for Freud, the greatest painter in her islands, over an 18-month period. He made her wear her most imposing crown, yet had her sitting in the most unprepossessing space, a grungy picture conservation basement at St James's Palace. Never can the balance of power between artist and monarch have moved so squarely in favour of the former. Freud made her look almost masculine in her dourness, and the crown seems to sit anachronistically on her clayey flesh.

Yet even better than Freud's picture, in many ways, is a wonderful photograph of the sitting by David Dawson. The Queen sits on a comical gold chair as the painter looms over her, making a curious postage stamp of his own. She may have been looking for honesty, but she might have been more careful in what she wished for. Too much self-knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For her 80th birthday portrait, unveiled in 2005, the Queen opted for Rolf Harris instead. l

“The Queen: Art and Image" opens at the National Gallery Complex in Edinburgh on 25 June and is on tour until October 2012.
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This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide