How a young queen was transformed into a work of art
Monarch portraits matter. They connect countries, define the memory of times. And the portraits of Queen Elizabeth II are no different – except in their profusion. During her reign as Britain’s longest-serving sovereign, the late Queen was the subject of almost a thousand official portraits. With characteristic grace, she was, in every way – including that of Platinum Jubilee photographer Ranald Mackechnie – a kind, talkative and surprisingly restless babysitter.
Certainly, the call of prominent names who wanted to represent her, albeit often unofficially, was astonishing: Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, to name but three. And thanks to the mass media, she has become, according to the National Portrait Gallery, probably the most depicted person in British history. Already in 1947, five years before her accession, the News Chronicle called her “unquestionably the most publicized young woman in the world”.
Beneath the surface of this unfathomable ocean of images, among the rocks of steep official photographs and the weeds of long-lens paparazzi snaps, lie the visual pearls by which future generations will remember Elizabeth II. And not just her, as both a private and public monarch, but also the society she ruled over for seven extraordinary decades. The deference that defined Britain at the start of the so-called “new Elizabethan era” has disappeared. In its place, for better or for worse, are the more spontaneous and informal, more sensitive values of the current moment. And this transformation is reflected in the evolution of portraits of the Queen. So, with hindsight, which of his phalanx of portrait painters succeeded, and who failed?
Like, I suspect, millions of others, I will always have the most affection and respect for the portraits of the late Queen from the 1950s – even though they predate my own birth by decades. It was, if you will, the “iconic” period of the late Her Majesty, when she appeared the most glamorous and regal of fairy tales, by turns movie star and royal goddess. This is the moment when his image – young, luminous, imposing – crystallizes in the minds of his subjects.
Is it any wonder that following the announcement of his death, Cecil Beaton’s splendid Imperial Coronation portrait, as bright and immaculate as a snowflake, has been so widely reproduced? Taken inside Buckingham Palace, it set the bar high for all subsequent portrait painters, and still provides the classic example of the genre that goes, so to speak, ‘all out’. In an imposing (and consciously contrived) set replicating the interior of the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, the 27-year-old Queen is seen in full dress, wearing the Imperial Crown and a special robe designed by Norman Hartnell .