Sunday, 15 July 2012

Elizabeth II’s Image at the National Portrait Gallery

By Dorothy Wilding, 1952
By Alex David

There is still some diamond dust from the Jubilee floating in the air in London, and this weekend I followed it to the National Portrait Gallery to see The Queen, Art and Image, the third major exhibition on royal images in London this year (besides the one on Cecil Beaton I reviewed recently, there is another one in Windsor which I plan to see soon).

This show advertises itself as a major retrospective on how the Queen’s image has developed through her reign, but I must admit the results are mixed. To start, it is too small to be a retrospective at all, and it seems under-curated. The captions are somewhat trite and insipid, and there is no background at all on the development of the British royal image in general, which is quite shocking considering that the NPG has one of the largest collections of royal portraits in existence. In general, the show tries to be hip and modern while remaining respectful to the monarch, but it really ends up achieving neither goal.

I understand that the exhibition started its life in Edinburgh last year and just reached London recently after stopping in Cardiff and Belfast, so perhaps it was curated by someone other than the good people at National Portrait Gallery—my favorite place in London—which would explain some of its failings. These criticisms aside, however, the show has some very good points. In particular, it includes some works so compelling and iconic that they make you forget the show’s general imperfections.

The face that launched a thousand banknotes: Dorothy’s Wilding’s image of the young Queen has been one of the many images of Elizabeth II used on stamps and currencies around the world.

The first area contains classic works from the 1950s, the most glamorous decade for the Queen. There are some very beautiful portraits of Elizabeth as young woman here. The most beautiful ones are a 1952 handpainted photo by Dorothy Wilding where the glammed up Queen actually looks a little like Ava Gardner (above); and a supremely noble picture by Cecil Beaton (left out of the recent V&A exhibition), where a stately Elizabeth in garter robes and plumed hat sits before a painted background of Windsor Castle, looking the very embodiment of the gracious and noble queen of the National Anthem (below).

Noblesse oblige:
Cecil Beaton produced this image of a young cavalier queen in 1955.

The 1950s was a time when monarchs were still portrayed as regal and refined, and the chief example of this is Pietro Annigoni’s full length portrait of the Queen from 1956, the main showpiece in this section (below). Once again, the young Queen is depicted wearing the robes of the Garter but now she is standing on top of a hill before a Brueghel-like landscape, as if belonging to a gentler, more chivalric age. In one respect, the piece is a dream-like idealization, a magnificent piece of English nostalgia, almost Norman Rockwell-like in vision.  It is, however, also a true psychological portrayal of the novice Queen who stands ready to serve, her gaze fixed on distant duties. Annigoni himself said he wanted to show the Queen “gazing at the world from a position of isolation”, and funnily he achieved this by having Elizabeth look out of the window of Buckingham Palace at the people and traffic down below (surely nobody must ever have gazed at mindless traffic with such dedicated eye).

The first lady of the oldest chivalry order in the world: a young, purposeful Elizabeth posed in the robes of the Order of the Garter for Pietro Annigoni in 1956.

Pietro Annigoni was one of the great underrated artists of the 20th century (much like the Queen, really) with a talent for capturing the sitter’s inner disposition in outward styles and colors. His second portrait of the Queen from 1969, the centerpiece of the 1960s section, is a wonderful example of his ability (below). Long considered a beautiful example of late 1960s style (over substance), the painting in fact seems to me another striking portrayal of the psychological state of the Queen at that point in her life. Elizabeth, a mature 33-year-old woman in the second decade of her reign, stands dressed like a Teutonic knight before a tundral dawn, stern looking, almost peeved in fact. Gone are the soft earthly colors of the first Annigoni portrait, and she is now instead a sober-red figure enveloped by different shades of gray. She still looks dutifully in the distance but she now seems burdened by that gaze, perhaps unhappy about the lack of freedom that her duties bring. And Annigoni’s masterful trick here is that the closer you come to the painting, the more disagreeable and put off her face becomes. Was Annigoni trying to tell us how much the Queen had changed, or had been changed by her job, in the 15 years since he had last painted her?

The bloom is off the monarch: Pietro Annigoni’s second portrait of the Queen from 1969 showed the Queen as a solemn, unamused woman.

Then again, perhaps one of the reasons why the Queen was pissed off was the way her portrayals had changed in the 1960s, the age when deference went out of style in Britain. Many pictures from this time depict the Queen doing pedestrian things like standing under an umbrella in the rain, while artists like Gerhard Richter used her image for artistic experiments that had nothing to do with the monarchy or herself.

Among these…aeehm…interesting experiments there luckily is a classic photo by photographer Yousuf Karsh (1966) that emphasizes majesty over the mundane (below). Karsh wanted, in his own words, to capture the Queen’s “regal splendor in an increasingly egalitarian age,” and the result is truly imperial in kind. The bejeweled Elizabeth sits primly in a gigantic gold and red throne, as if ready to receive homage from colonial tribes, and looks very much like her great-grandmother Victoria in her younger days. The image feels like Europe’s last gasp of majesty, and ironically (then again, probably by design) it hangs right next to a newspaper photo of the Queen giving the World Cup Football trophy to Bobby Moore in 1966.

More like a Hapsburg than a Windsor:
this grand image of royalty was taken in 1966 by photographer Yousuf Karsh.

The exhibition tends to sag from here on. The 1970s are represented by a motley crew of boring pictures showing the Queen going about her work or hanging with her family. There is also the famous 1977 Sex Pistols record cover of God Save the Queen (a gagged and blindfolded Queen) which had really more to do with punk’s shameless self-promotion than with the monarchy. The only image of note here is Patrick Lichfield’s famous unrehearsed photo of the Queen in sunglasses laughing aboard the yacht Britannia (below), giving a glimpse of how the person below the crown amuses herself. As always, her dazzling smile is highly infectious—stand before this picture for longer than 10 seconds and see if you don't want to start laughing with her.   

The girl likes to have fun: Patrick Lichfield captured this off-the-cuff chuckle from the Queen during a vacation on board the royal yacht Britannia in 1971.

The section on the 1980s/1990s is odd in many ways. To start with, the focus on the struggles between the Queen and Diana is quite passe’ by now and makes you think the curator had an axe to grind about it. The pieces are also odd, including a larger than life portrait of the Queen by Hiroshi Sujimoto (1999) that is actually a picture of a waxwork, and that looks more like an old George VI in drag. Justin Mortimer’s portrait of the Queen from 1998 is also odd but at least it is artistically sound—even though the Queen looks like a shiny green bug crawling on a huge lemon (below).

Apparently the Queen liked this 1998 portrait by Justin Mortimer so much
that she asked the artist to do another portrait of her Lord Chamberlain—though
she might have meant it as a joke.

It is also odd to admit that the best artwork in the room belongs to Andy Warhol, something I am not likely to write ever again. Four of his trademark prints of the Queen’s face in different colors (1985) are on display, and they actually make Her Majesty look very beautiful, with perfect lips and stunning movie star eyes. The different colors in each print also make her look slightly different in each: elegant in aubergine, empathetic in blue, shocking in pink and supercilious in burgundy.

Some 1990s pictures focus on events in the Queen’s life, and include some photojournalism shots which, intentionally or not, are actually hilarious. One photo from 1992 of a shocked Queen looking at a burned out Windsor Castle is only missing the text bubble coming out of her mouth saying “YYIIKES!” (below).  Another one from 1997 where she reviews a row of pushed-up-breasted Spice Girls captures an expression on her face as if to say “Do you think I care to see those, dear?”

HOLY SUGAR!! The Queen sees Windsor Castle going up in smokes in 1992. Suspicions centred on Sarah Ferguson falling asleep with a cig in her mouth.
(Photo by Dylan Martinez, from

The pictures from the last decade are all about the Queen as an old lady, almost a pensioner really, though one who seems fair game for cruel jokes. The section starts with the little monstrous portrait by Lucian Freud where she looks like she’s just been in a watering hole brawl. It then goes on to another hideous likeness, a plastic carving called Medusa made of hundreds of little black toys, where she looks like a bug-eyed, bearded pirate.

In between these two extremes hangs a masterpiece in mediocrity: Thomas Struth’s recent portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle (below) where they look like a dowdy old couple freshly dumped in a nursing home (the way Philip’s trousers ride up his ankles and his jacket is one button away from bursting open is particularly pathetic). That’s not to say the photo is not a technical triumph with its wonderful tones of greens and gold shining in the Windsor castle apartments (a very rich nursing home!) but it’s just that the royal couple look more like accidental tourists to the place rather than its royal residents.

The other side of normal: Thomas Struth’s portrait of the Queen and Philip (2012)
makes them look too much like Fred and Mabel from the local nursing home.

I suppose it takes a real genius to capture old age in its true glorious state, and luckily this last section does contain such a masterpiece, one of Annie Leibowitz’ portraits of the Queen from 2007 (below). What most people today remember from that famous photo shoot is Leibowitz digging a hole for herself by telling the Queen that she looked too dressy with her crown on (which was actually a tiara, darling, not a crown). These anecdotal memories however will one day fade, and all that will remain will be Leibowitz’ stunning photos of the Queen. One of them is used as an epilogue to the exhibition’s visual journey.

Her Majesty, wearing a dark admiral robe, stands in the middle of Buckingham Palace gardens, among winter trees and with a beautifully foreboding copper sky behind her. Leibowitz said she wanted to emulate Cecil Beaton by using the same cape he had used on the Queen during a photoshoot in 1969, but the results actually echo someone else’s work. In the choice of pose and background, Leibowitz’s photo recalls elements from the two Pietro Annigoni paintings seen earlier in the exhibition, and in so doing, perhaps unwittingly, she completed a trilogy of visual milestones Annigoni had started in 1956.

Sometimes it takes a republican to show royalty in its best light. This portrait by American Annie Leibowitz from 2007 captures the Queen in all her autumn years dignity.

 Annigoni’s first portrait of the Queen, at the beginning of her reign, portrayed an idealized young woman showing dutiful curiosity in the royal road ahead of her. His second encounter with a mature monarch in 1969 left the impression of a woman in control of her job but somewhat struggling to breathe free in it. Leibowitz’s portrait of the Queen in old age—recalling the landscape from the 1956 portrait and the pose from the 1969 work—shows the Queen at the end of her journey, staring securely into the camera as a woman who has grown confident in her job, as someone who has weathered cloudy skies but still stands tall in the landscape, just like one of the sturdy trees around her (which incidentally were photoshopped from a separate shot). The picture not only depicts old age with outstanding dignity, it also shows that the young promising girl of 1956 did grow into an accomplished monarch. The three images, at different points in the show, act as a spread-out triptych marking the Queen’s life in stunning style. But they are not the most memorable work in the exhibition.

The Queen, like you have never seen her before.
This holographic portrait by Chris Levine from 2004 makes you feel you are standing before Elizabeth herself, with all her jewels, wrinkles and furs.

The last royal image closing the exhibition is a variant of the image opening the show, and both of them, by artist Chris Levine, lay claim equally as the most remarkable portraits in the exhibition.  Equanimity, at the beginning, and The Lightness of Being, at the end, are lifelike holographic creations that must be seen to be believed. The Queen is shown frontally in Equanimity (2004) wearing her familiar George IV coronet and staring forward, warts and all—and I mean warts. The holography in the picture highlights every feature in her face including unplucked eyebrows and more wrinkles than the moon has craters (above). In fact, the Queen’s often praised flawless complexion really takes a severe beating in this image, though her eyes remain famously limpid and blue. (I should point out that these are not holographic 3-D pictures like in Star Trek. They’re rather like those shiny cards you used to play with as a child where the image changes when you turn it this way and that).

The Lightness of Being (2007) is bigger and slightly eerier (below). The Queen is shown with her eyes closed, looking like a freshly deceased corpse with the crown still on, almost implying that she will die queen to the very end—though I am not sure if this was the intended meaning: the artist admitted this portrait was an afterthought based on a fleeting moment during the posing for Equanimity when the Queen was resting her eyes. Both portraits are based on an excellent idea brilliantly executed, and both manage to evoke a sense of closeness to the monarch that no traditional, two-dimensional work could elicit. They are a great mix of the modern (the technique) and the old (the subject) and are highly captivating. I found it very hard to take my eyes off the lifelike Equanimity and wondered if the same thing happens when you meet the Queen in person.

Dead or alive? This second holographic portrait by Chris Levine (2007)
gives an eerie corpse-like look to the Queen.

These holographic portraits are reason alone to visit this exhibition since no reproduction can replicate the experience of seeing them in person. The Annigoni-Leibowitz triptych is also worth a trip if only because the 1956 portrait, owned privately by the City Fishmongers Livery, is being shown to the public for the first time in 28 years. For the rest, the show is a mixed bag, and enjoyment is based on whether you are looking for the art of monarchy or the art of photography. The exhibition is good on photography but just the sum of its parts as far as monarchy goes—though they are very fine parts indeed.

The secret of Elizabeth II’s success? This quote was shown on a wall at the end of the exhibition, and does explain some of the howlers she chose to pose for through her reign.

The Queen: Art and Image runs at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 21 October 2012. For information on address, admission times and ticket prices click here. 

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