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Painting Queen Elizabeth

The painted surface of monarchy is everything

Artillery Row

Queen Elizabeth II had the most famous face in the world. From stamps to screens, her image is everywhere in every format. Yet painting played almost no part in the creation of this icon. She was the subject of almost 1000 official portraits, most of which are failures. How has the country of Reynolds and Gainsborough failed to produce a great portrait of its most visible monarch?

Simon Schama says that the best portraits in our national canon emerge from “the struggle to magic from the triangular collision of wills between sitter, artist and public the palpable presence of remarkable Briton”. Paintings of the Queen, by contrast, tend to fall into one of four broad categories: flat and ceremonial, abortive attempts at revealing “the woman beneath the crown”, twee schlock and pop art. 

The Coronation Theatre: Portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II by Ralph Heimans, which now hangs in Westminster Abbey is an example of the first type. It’s grand, moody, and replete with royal symbolism. But what it really amounts to is a painting of jewels, robes and the Abbey where monarchs have been crowned for nearly 1000 years — not a person. As the title itself suggests, this is about royal theatre, and no individual has a “palpable presence” in pageantry.

Pictures like these do, at least, serve a public need as an accessory to ritual and an adornment to important buildings. Paintings of the second kind have higher artistic aspirations, and are therefore always more disappointing. In this box belongs Miriam Escofet’s 2020 portrait for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which the artist says is intended to emphasise Her Majesty’s humanity as “the nation’s grandmother”. The result is dull, impersonal and lacks interest despite the profusion of fussy detail. A comparison with the artist’s BP Portrait Award-winning picture of her mother, which is so strange and intimate, reveals what a poor showcase this commission was for her talent.

Escofet is in good company. Even great artists have struggled with this subject. Lucian Freud’s portrait of Elizabeth II has some claim to being his worst. Freud’s process was notoriously gruelling for his subjects, who were often forced to lie nude and in contorted positions for hours while he practically flayed them with his brush. The idea of him doing such a thing to Her Majesty is absurd. As a result, the picture is a weak compromise. It’s even physically tiny, just nine by six inches, like it’s ashamed of itself. In this “collision of wills”, the artist, for once in his career, lost.

The third category is characterised by a syrupy, Paddington Bear patriotism. You know it when you see it. It’s in Susan Crawford’s Her Majesty the Queen on Worcran from 1977 — which is a perfectly nice picture of a horse. It’s there in Rolf Harris’ 80th birthday portrait, about which the less said the better. And in Peter Blake’s dauby watercolour for the Diamond Jubilee edition of the Radio Times.

It’s a shame, because the movement Blake is most associated with, pop art, has had the most success in dealing with the idea of a mask that never slips. The totemic pop art picture of Elizabeth II is Andy Warhol’s Reigning Queens, part of a series of screen prints he made of press photographs of iconic women like Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Onassis. Of course it’s not really a portrait at all, but a picture of the paradox of fame. As Warhol said, “The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away”. He understood that there are some images so familiar that you can’t see them, and some people so recognisable you can never know them.

Other artists who have taken this further, like Gerhard Richter, with his weird and creepy Königin Elisabeth, Oluwole Omofemi, and Pietro Annigoni with his lovely 1955 work for Fishmonger’s Hall. Each of their paintings is a clear response to photographs of the late Queen, and an elaboration of the idea that hers is always an image of image. They are essays on the nature of painting, the challenge posed to it by photography and commentaries on consumer culture in an age of infinite reproduction. None is really intended to conjure a real person in the way Schama describes. Indeed, as another pop artist, David Hockney said, “I’m not sure how to paint her [Elizabeth II], you see, because she’s not an ordinary human being”.

Photography has superseded painting

That duality between the mortal body and the body politic, between Queen Elizabeth II as a woman and as a sovereign, is why photography has superseded painting when it comes to depicting the monarchy. Photography, like royalty, is all about surface, artifice and projection. 

It’s no coincidence that so many national newspapers chose Cecil Beaton’s coronation photograph for their front pages marking her death. With its self-consciously heightened colouring and fake backdrop, it’s the picture that comes closest to capturing the late Queen’s beauty and majesty, the weight of the symbolism she carried, and the superficiality of it all.

The art critic Waldemar Januszczak says that photography’s preeminence is because Elizabeth II was “a supermodel” who lenses loved and which she loved back. But I think that’s too simplistic.

The camera has an imaginary candor that tricks you into thinking you’ve been invited into a private world. It’s why the photo of the Queen laughing while walking past Prince Philip in military uniform is so loveable — you think you’re seeing an intimate moment of the kind shared between every ordinary long-married couple. It’s an illusion of course, she wasn’t laughing at her husband at all, but at a swarm of bees — and they weren’t an ordinary couple.

There have been great royal paintings in the past. Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII is so seared into the national imagination that we can still recognise the Tudor king from his inverted trapezoid outline. Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I, with that melancholy expression which seems to foreshadow his fate, hangs in the most prominent position in the National Gallery. George IV’s padded privileged features are familiar from Thomas Lawrence. But few subsequent monarchs have packed the same painterly punch. 

Maybe it’s because the painted portrait is both too swaggering and too sincere a medium for the sleight of hand a modern constitutional monarchy involves. Elizabeth II famously said that her family had to be “seen to be believed”, but with her deep knowledge of constitutional history, she’d also have been mindful of Bagehot’s warning never to “let daylight in upon the magic”. The best photographs of Elizabeth II tread this line between showing you the splendid royal surface, reflecting the nation back at itself, without ever revealing the depths. In art, as in everything else, the Queen was always on duty.

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