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13 September 2022

Portraits of a Queen

From regal paintings to punk collages, images of Elizabeth II have alternately humanised and glorified her.

By Michael Prodger

In late 1548, Titian readied himself to paint the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the most powerful monarch in Europe. Through nerves or clumsiness, however, Titian dropped a brush and, to his bewilderment, the emperor stooped and picked it up for him. According to the 17th-century biographer Carlo Ridolfi: “Titian protested, saying: ‘Sire, I am not worthy of such a servant.’ To which the emperor replied: ‘Titian is worthy to be served by Caesar.’” This courtly exchange exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between monarchy and portraiture.

Kings, queens and emperors have always needed their artists, sometimes more than the artists needed them. Charles V had Titian, Pope Julius II – a spiritual king – had Raphael, Philip IV of Spain had Velázquez, Charles I had Van Dyck, Charles IV of Spain had Goya, Napoleon had Jacques-Louis David, George IV had Thomas Lawrence. In fixing the image of their rulers for eternity, the painters added lustre to both their names.

Queen Elizabeth II did not need portraitists in the same way. As the most photographed woman of the age it was the camera that disseminated her features not the brush. Nor did she have her own Titian or Lawrence but sat for more portraitists, of very different degrees of competence, than almost all of her forebears. The pictures – whether successful or maladroit – trace not just the roll of her 70 years on the throne but changing attitudes in both art and deference.

The first official portrait of Elizabeth as crowned Queen was a photograph, composed and lit by Cecil Beaton to resemble a painting. Beaton was present at the coronation ceremony in 1953 and after the royals returned from Westminster Abbey he preserved the new young queen in an image of ineffable glamour, sitting in her ermine cloak, dressed in the coronation gown designed by Norman Hartnell, with the Imperial State Crown on her head and the orb and sceptre in her hands. The soft-focus backdrop is not Westminster Abbey itself but a painted screen showing the Lady Chapel. This theatrical staging is appropriate for an image that is not a record of a personality but of beauty and majesty incarnated – a fairy tale.

Two years later, the Italian portraitist Pietro Annigoni stayed with unreality and reimagined the Queen as a Renaissance monarch, wrapped in a swathe of her Garter robe and staring into the distance. Annigoni, an avowed traditionalist and signatory to a manifesto that denounced abstract art, produced a work that unashamedly drew on the classical tradition – it is even painted in the ancient medium of egg tempera. He had struggled to find a satisfactory expression for the Queen’s face until she told him that: “When I was a little child, it always delighted me to look out of the window and see the people and traffic going by.” It is not the responsibilities of the crown that lie behind her thousand-yard gaze but the idle thoughts of a people watcher. The painting attracted huge crowds when it was first exhibited and, although it has been derided as a romantic confection, Annigoni’s conviction raises it above mere pastiche.

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[See also: Who is attending the Queen’s funeral?]

The most “official” of the Queen’s official portraits are usually overlooked. Since 1953 five different profile portraits of her, commissioned by the Royal Mint, have appeared on the nation’s coinage, each one the work of a different artist. Mary Gillick, Arnold Machin, Raphael Maklouf, Ian Rank-Broadley and Jody Clark may not be the most recognisable of sculptural names but their work – and that of banknote artists such as Robert Austin who produced the portrait of the Queen for the 1960 £1 note (the first to carry her image) – demanded that they subsume their artistic personalities for legibility and timelessness.

The first portrait of Elizabeth II as crowned Queen. Photo by Cecil Beaton/Camera Press

Rank-Broadley, who made the 1998 image for the new, smaller coinage, perfected his profile on an 18-inch plaster disc and believed his job was to produce a true portrait and that there was: “no need to disguise the matureness of the Queen’s years. There is no need to flatter her. She is a 70-year-old woman with poise and bearing.” Not everyone agreed, however, and his jowly version of the Queen ruffled feathers (a taster of the opprobrium lobbed at his 2021 statue of Princess Diana in Kensington Palace in London).

Less divisive – and less formal – was Michael Leonard’s 1985-86 portrait, commissioned by Reader’s Digest magazine to mark the Queen’s 60th birthday. It is an exercise in comforting realism by an artist who trained as an illustrator, which is why it is based on photographs rather than face to face sittings. Leonard took 100 photographs in Buckingham Palace and used a combination of six for the final work. His intention, he said, was “to play down the remoteness of Her Majesty’s special position”, so he showed her close up in a yellow dress (in the Yellow Drawing Room) with one of her corgis, Spark – hence the painting’s alternative title of “Corgi and Bess”. The result is a benign monarch, almost off-duty and exuding good humour.

[See also: Will the monarchy last?]

What the Queen herself thought of the images made of her remained unknown. As she got older she certainly seems to have been game for increasingly experimental works. In 2004, for example, Chris Levine was commissioned by the Jersey Heritage Trust to make a portrait of her to celebrate the island’s 800-year loyalty to the Crown. He devised a larger-than-life-size hologram, mounted in glass and illuminated by LEDs. Over the course of two sittings at Buckingham Palace, Levine took 10,000 photographs using a long exposure and combined them for a composite work. Levine had been telling the Queen about his interest in meditation and she was apparently much interested so he timed the exposures to match her breathing.

The most surprising image, however, was a still taken during a break in the process. The Queen, in furs and a diamond crown, closed her eyes and the resulting picture, bleached of some of its detail, is almost spectral, showing her momentarily off guard and vulnerably human behind the pomp.

If Levine’s work is one of trust between sitter and artist, the portrait made by Justin Mortimer in 1997 is one of wariness. Mortimer was 27 at the time and a winner of the BP Portrait Award when he was commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts. He was reluctant to accept the proposal in case it damaged his own credibility and because he believed another portrait of the Queen would be “an irrelevance”. Nevertheless, the Palace gave him carte blanche and in the portrait he produced she is tucked at the bottom of the canvas against an acid-yellow background with her head floating free of her body. Critics decried the lack of decorum and interpreted the picture as a reference to Tudor decapitations. Others saw it as alluding to the monarchy’s disassociation with the public following the death of Princess Diana that year. Mortimer confessed that “there was… a lack of connection between us”, and observed that “we are here in the world and she is away from us in the palace”. The Queen, however, was not put off and later commissioned him to paint her Lord Chamberlain.

It is perhaps her unofficial portraits that make for the most interesting images. The Queen proved irresistible to some major 20th-century artists, drawn by the challenge of making something different from that familiar face. In 1966 Gerhard Richter made two portraits of her following a royal visit to West Germany the previous year. In one he took a newspaper photograph and enlarged and blurred it so she ends up featureless beneath her hat but shimmering and pale grey and still instantly recognisable.

Because the Queen was also the world’s greatest celebrity, Andy Warhol had a crack at her too, in 1985. She was one of four reigning queens he treated in a series of screenprints to which he added blocks of random colour. The pictures are not among his best, with Warhol seemingly unable to summon up enough enthusiasm to examine either her status or psychology.

Queen Elizabeth II posing for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud
Queen Elizabeth II posing for Lucian Freud, 2001. Photo by David Dawson /Bridgeman Images

Lucian Freud was more interested and rather than being asked, he managed to persuade her to sit for him over an 18-month period in a room in St James’s Palace (she wouldn’t come to his studio). Although he was already painting huge, fleshy pictures of naked models he squeezed the Queen’s face into a canvas just 22cm tall. She wouldn’t have expected flattery and she didn’t get it: her face is not a good likeness, indeed it resembles Freud’s own almost as much as hers. What it does show though is an ordinary woman, whose humanity trumps her majesty, despite the incongruous diamond crown on her head. There had previously been a suggestion that Freud paint Princess Diana but his friend Lord Goodman warned that while it was “a great, great wonderful idea… I shouldn’t leave her in a room with Lucian”. The Queen’s sole known comment about the sittings and resultant picture was to tell him that: “I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.”

Arguably the most potent portrait was an anti-monarchical wail. During the Silver Jubilee year of 1977, the Sex Pistols’ designer Jamie Reid created the artwork for the band’s new single, “God Save the Queen”. He took an anodyne black and white photograph, set it against a Union flag and placed letters torn, ransom-note style, from newspapers over her eyes and mouth. The image fizzed with the energy and anger of punk rock. It nearly didn’t appear at all as the platemakers for the sleeve design found the defacing so offensive.

Original Sex Pistols 'God Save the Queen' print
Original Sex Pistols print, “God Save the Queen” showcased at Christie’s in London. Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

“She ain’t no human being,” the Sex Pistols sang, and they were right. The Queen was more than that and Reid’s antagonistic portrait was just one of many that served to prove her mutability. She outlived punk just as she had outlived Cecil Beaton’s make-believe, and, looking back, Reid’s work inadvertently endowed her with a spiky glamour. Her face, volunteered or co-opted, had always been a blank canvas for others.

[See also: We should celebrate Charles and Camilla’s very modern love story]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession