Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Happy and Glorious

Karsh of Ottawa
In this Jubilee Year it seems fitting that we should look at portraits of Her Majesty. She is, after all, our Queen too. Long to reign over us, until she goes to join her predecessors in St George's Chapel, Windsor.  After that … who knows? But I suspect I'll search my purse in vain for an Australian coin with King Charles III's profile on it.

Monarchs have always been able to commission the services of the foremost painters of their day - the trick was to be a contemporary of the great masters. Up to the Plantaganets, there are really no royal portraits that excite me greatly, and indeed it is accepted that the images of the Norman and Plantagenet kings are probably fictitious.
Richard III

Mind you, I have always liked the well-known portrait of the last Plantagenet, Richard III, ever since I read Josephine Tey's novel, The Daughter of Time, as a teenager. It is this intelligent, troubled face that inspired Miss Tey's convalescing Inspector Grant to stave off his boredom by launching a private inquiry into the fate of the little Princes in the Tower: did Richard have them murdered? Grant brings his modern Scotland Yard methods to bear on the historical mystery, with surprising results.

Sadly, the truth is that this romantic portrait of King Richard was painted over a century after his death: the age of the oak panel on which it is painted can be accurately dated by dendrochronology. (I read that word in a National Geographic at the dentist's and I've waited a long time for the chance to impress my Gentle Readers with it!)

With the advent of the Tudors, the kings started hitting the Great Painters jackpot. Henry VII was painted by Michael Sittow, one of the foremost Flemish painters of the time; his successor Henry VIII upgraded the Flemish connection from Sittow to Holbein. The first Elizabeth had Nicholas Hilliard. Charles I trumped them all with Anthony van Dyck, but Charles II fought back gamely with Peter Lely, who for good measure painted all his mistresses too. (That would have been a full-time job!)
"The Secret Picture"

European royalty loved Franz Winterhalter's romantic and flattering portraits, and Queen Victoria was no exception. He painted dozens of portraits of the Queen and her circle, including a very special one which she gave to Prince Albert as a birthday gift in 1843. The Prince considered her bare shoulders, loose hair and langourous expression too sensual and intimate for eyes other than his own, and kept it behind a screen in his private office.  Albert was of course entitled to his opinion but for myself, I can't really see anyone being driven crazy with lust by the "secret picture", as the queen referred to it in her diary. It's no Playboy centrefold.

Our own Queen is undoubtedly the most portrayed monarch of them all. During the first 60 years of her reign, she has sat for 139 official portraits. She is a public figure, instantly recognisable, but she is still enigmatic: her thoughts and opinions remain private.

She has been painted by all the prominent painters of our time, from Piero Annigoni to Lucien Freud. Even Rolf Harris has had a go, not to mention Andy Warhol. Her Majesty has also been more photographed than any of her predecessors: Cecil Beaton, Yousuf Karsh, Lichfield, Snowdon, Annie Leibowitz - she has posed for all the great lensmasters.
Piero Annigoni, 1954

To my mind Annigoni's compelling 1954 portrait is the iconic one of the reign. (I always try to forget that is was commissioned by The Fishmonger's Company - even the Glovemakers or the Pastrycooks would have sounded better!) Anyway, despite the whiff of haddock, it is considered to be one of the great royal portraits of the century. The Queen is an aloof figure, isolated in a wintry landscape. She wears the dark blue cloak of the Garter Knights, and needs no jewels to proclaim her majestic status.
Annie Leibovitz, 2007
  Half a century later, Annie Leibowitz reprised that theme, photographing Her Majesty in an admiral's dark blue cloak, against a dramatic sky. Perhaps Leibowitz also used the sky to reference the storm clouds in the famous "Ditchley Portrait" of the first Elizabeth, although for dramatic impact that theatrical cloak beats the farthingale every time!
"Lightness of Being" by Chris Levine
My favourite photograph of the Queen is one by Chris Levine, taken during a lengthy photo shoot in 2007, when, resting between shots, she briefly closed her eyes. Levine calls it "Lightness of Being". The image seems poised between the public persona and the private individual, an endearing moment in which we see the elderly lady behind the majestic facade. It is a far cry from the posed formal shots of the Beaton era, but no less dignified despite the humanising realisation that Queens also get tired.
Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud is considered one of the greatest British painters of the century.  His 2001 portrait of the Queen was commissioned for the Royal Collection. It is was not well received: generally reviled as ugly, a travesty and a disgrace. Knowing Freud's uncompromising eye and his unsparing approach to his subjects, I can't help but wonder: what did the people who commissioned it expect? Can it be that they were blinded by the Great Name but hadn't actually seen his work? Another of those Little Mysteries of Life that crop up so regularly in these articles.
I dearly wish that I could talk about and show more of the many remarkable portraits of this remarkable woman, but as always, space does not permit. I can, however, recommend "The Queen: Art and Image", available at your local library.

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