Andrew Lambirth

The art of monarchy

Andrew Lambirth reflects on the images that help shape our perception of the Queen

The art of monarchy
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Andrew Lambirth reflects on the images that help shape our perception of the Queen

Her Majesty the Queen has been a global celebrity for 60 years, and she carries her status with a naturalness and dignity that many of the more tearaway celebs would do well to emulate. She graduated from being a young and glamorous queen to a happy and fulfilled mother, but then had to settle for pausing in that most difficult of categories — middle age — for rather a long time, owing to the wondrous longevity of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. As the Queen now celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, in her own distinguished old age, it is revealing to consider how art and the mass media have helped to shape our changing perceptions of the monarch.

Notions of kingship have altered drastically since the legendary reign of the Queen’s forebear, Henry VIII, whose image of massive power was so accurately captured in Holbein’s four-square portrayal of him. Nowadays, the personal ascendancy of the sovereign is much reduced, and the role survives in the somewhat emasculated form of a constitutional monarchy. The historian David Cannadine refers to this as ‘a feminised monarchy’, which can perhaps be best and most sympathetically embodied by a woman. The Queen has made a superb job of this, and her success may be in part attributed to her own comment: ‘Let us not take ourselves too seriously.’ Clearly, this applies to us, too...

People want their monarchs to be different, special, but they also like them to come down to earth occasionally. (King George VI and his wife visiting the bombed East End, Edward VIII with his ability to chat easily to ordinary people.) But if they’re down on our level all the time, there is no gratifying contrast when they do talk to us — no sense of benign visitation. And if the sovereign’s presence becomes routine, or taken for granted, it loses its resonance and its magic: that way lies indifference if not downright contempt. So it’s important that a degree of separation is maintained: monarchs cannot be seen to be entirely like us. It would make their job even more difficult.

These thoughts are occasioned by an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (until 21 October), entitled The Queen: Art & Image. The show has been touring the country for the past year, from Edinburgh to Belfast and Cardiff. Arriving at the NPG, it has been housed in rather cramped quarters at the front of the museum, while the vast survey of Lucian Freud’s unsympathetic portraits (mostly nudes) takes up the best galleries. Freud is everywhere, though thankfully his exhibition will have ended by the time you read this. He’s even included in The Queen: Art & Image, with that dreadful portrait he painted in 2001. You know the one — Her Majesty looks as if she’s just taken a pinch of snuff and is trying not to sneeze. Or perhaps sitting for Freud just got up her nose.

The exhibition begins with a technologically up-to-date lenticular print on a lightbox, a holographic portrait of the Queen by Chris Levine and Rob Munday entitled ‘Equanimity’. I don’t particularly like lenticulars, which seem to move as you walk past them and supposedly convey the three-dimensional reality of the subject. But undoubtedly there is a greater sense of presence in a lenticular than in an ordinary photograph, and I suspect that viewing this highly detailed (I cannot say lifelike) representation of the Queen is the nearest that many people will ever come to the real person. Which made the fact that a Japanese film crew was fooling around in front of it when I visited the show all the more unacceptable. This was disrespectful; but I suppose it was also publicity, and the NPG needs publicity (despite Freud) even if the Queen may have had enough of it.

I am old enough to remember the profound shock of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when a colliery spoil tip slid down a mountainside and engulfed a school and 20 homes; 144 people died, most of them children. Prince Philip and the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, at once visited the scene of this appalling tragedy, but it became evident that the public needed the Queen to be there, too. She did indeed make a tour of the devastated area, nine days after the disaster, and her presence was much appreciated. But, in retrospect, the gap between the event and the Queen’s response was seen to be significant. It was generally felt that the monarch now needed to be more in touch with the people, and more ready to respond to their needs. The royal mystique was widely perceived as constituting too great a barrier between ruler and subjects.

After that, it became deliberate palace policy to present the Queen less formally, and to allow the human side of the figurehead more prominence. She became, in image at least, approachable. Thus she was photographed relaxed and laughing aboard the royal yacht or smiling at the rain from under an umbrella. Since then, the Queen has had to perform a high-wire act, being all things to all men. She has had to be (or seem to be) accessible and warmly human, and at the same time a living embodiment of exalted notions of lifelong duty and service, a bastion of stability and reassurance in a confused and rapidly changing society. (An informal but strong 1968 photograph by Cecil Beaton, of the Queen in an admiral’s boat cloak against a depthless turquoise ground, sums up this dichotomy.) The Queen has become the most marvellous symbol of continuity — of the ability to survive whatever trials may be set before her, and this endurance has become closely identified with the continued existence of the nation as we know it.

The NPG’s exhibition does not offer a reverential survey of royal portraiture, but rather a tasting of different responses to the person and role of the monarch. The sovereign may not be treated with reverence here, but the platitudes of contemporary art certainly are. Obligatory images by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter hang emptily beside reportage photographs. Gilbert & George get in on the act with a couple of postcard collages. The infamous Sex Pistols ‘God Save the Queen’ poster is here, and a large black-and-white cautionary photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto of a wax mannequin purporting to be our regnant monarch. Hew Locke’s ‘Medusa’ (2008) is a different kind of image of the Queen. Made out of cheap but brightly coloured plastic jewellery, it’s a tawdry assemblage of tat with yellow fog-lamp eyes. Locke grew up in British Guyana where the Queen’s image was on the covers of school exercise books. His ‘Medusa’ looks like a giant obliterating doodle done in revenge for the unrelieved boredom of schooldays.

Altogether more enjoyable is Pietro Annigoni’s famous 1954–5 portrait, ‘Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Regent’. Commissioned by the Fishmongers’ Company, it is rightly regarded as one of the greatest royal portraits of the 20th century, infinitely superior to Annigoni’s NPG sequel of 1959. This thought-provoking display ends with a puissant portrait of the Queen, once again in her admiral’s cloak, photographed in 2007 by Annie Leibovitz. The monarch is presented in solitary splendour, very handsome against a park-like setting of woods and water. Almost black and white, it is subtly tinted, giving colour to the Queen’s face and to the gold clasp and buttons down her cloak. Magnificently understated, it is impressively dignified and regal. Just the image for the present occasion.