Queen Victoria’s 1897 diamond jubilee was the greatest show of the year, celebrated across her vast realms, and now her great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, is poised to mark her own longevity on the throne. Victoria’s reign saw
the emergence of photography, which helped her to rule as supreme imperial icon. To confirm Elizabeth’s enhanced status as “the most portrayed person in British history”, we have a fresh port-folio of royal images published in association with an exhibition produced by London’s National Portrait Gallery. Currently on show in Edinburgh, it travels to Belfast and Cardiff before opening in London to mark next year’s 60th anniversary of her accession.
What’s striking is the diversity of the images, with staged studio portraits a distinct minority. Candid photographs include a bleak shot taken on the day in November 1992 when Windsor Castle was burning – the absolute nadir of the queen’s “annus horribilis” – and one from 1997 that shows her bewildered among a mass of floral tributes to Princess Diana. From another realm altogether are works by artists such as Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter, whose engagement with the monarch involved the manipulation of photographic icons in a quest for the artificial essence of her celebrity. A disconcerting 1999 photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto turns out to be a “portrait” of the queen’s wax effigy at Madame Tussaud’s – an object that is simultaneously lifelike and artificial.
The painted studio portraits are perhaps most revealing of the tension between regal splendour and vulnerable individuality. During her reign, the Queen has participated in close to 200 commissioned portraits, while steadfastly declining to comment on any of them. In 2005, she endured several sittings with the 78-year-old didgeridoo-playing cartoonist Rolf Harris, who had requested a commission to mark her impending 80th birthday. More a publicity stunt by Harris than a serious undertaking, the greenish-hued result – her 180th official portrait – was nevertheless graciously accepted into the Royal Collection.
While Harris’s ebullient contribution failed to make the cut for this book, there is the controversial outcome of the Queen’s 2000-01 encounters with Lucian Freud, the leading British painter who died last week and was known for his unflinching depiction of flesh. Asked to depict her in the famous George IV diadem that featured in her coronation photographs almost 50 years earlier, Freud produced a small, tightly cropped painting of a decidedly human creature ambiguously described by curator Paul Moorhouse as “striving stoically to maintain dignity in an age alert to irony”.
Justin Mortimer’s 1998 presentation of the Queen as flattened shapes on a uniform yellow ground – a commission by the Royal Society of Arts – elicited an adverse public reaction. Nevertheless, flirtation with contemporary styles indicates a monarch in search of a more up-to-date image, and the Queen later commissioned Mortimer to paint her Lord Chamberlain. Perhaps the most extraordinary of the recent portraits is the holograph commissioned in 2004 by the Island of Jersey, for which Chris Levine shot 10,000 exposures of eight seconds each over two sittings. Between shots, the Queen would rest her eyes, a state that was captured by Levine and immortalised in Lightness of Being (2007). The startling result combines the formality of regal self-presentation (the signature George IV diadem effectively her “uniform”) with a relaxed, introspective serenity.
Many of the portraits pay homage to earlier precedents, such as the 2007 commission from American photographer Annie Leibovitz. Referencing the celebrated portraits of Pietro Annigoni and Cecil Beaton, Leibovitz presents the Queen as a solitary figure in a gloomy twilight landscape, draped in the same admiral’s cloak used by Beaton. Her Majesty seems to be incarnated as one of the undead, her signature hairstyle approximating an 18th-century vampire’s wig.
Despite the obvious irritations, Elizabeth II seems to have enjoyed the duty of posing for royal portraits.
Royalist historian Professor Sir David Cannadine, author of the scintillating Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire (2001), is currently chair of trustees at the National Portrait Gallery. Here, Cannadine contributes Sixty Years a Queen, an essay in which he profiles Elizabeth II’s inheritance of the “only upscale, world-class, high-end Crown that was surviving and thriving anywhere,” and mounts an intriguing yet plausible argument that since a constitutional monarchy is effectively an emasculated monarchy, this makes it “easier for a regnant queen to be sympathetically portrayed than a merely dignified king”.
In 1961, EH McCormick mocked New Zealand’s servile adoration of the monarchy in an amusing essay that (echoing Rudyard Kipling) is titled Last, Loneliest, Most Loyal. If there’s a deeply loyal loneliness you are seeking to assuage, this commemorative album is definitely for you.
THE QUEEN: ART & IMAGE, by Paul Moorhouse with an essay by David Cannadine (Hardie Grant, $39.99).
Roger Blackley teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington. He is author of the Montana New Zealand Book Award winner Goldie and, most recently, Te Mata: The Ethnological Portrait.