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.