Pomp and portraiture

Elissa Jobson

To mark the diamond jubilee, Queen: Art and Image, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, looks back over the 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign with a collection of official and unofficial photographs and paintings.

Cloaked in a heavy fur robe, a bejewelled orb weighing heavy in her left hand, a golden sceptre in her right, Queen Eliza­beth II stares intently into the camera lens. She looks solemn and possibly a little scared – awed, perhaps, by the enormity of the lifelong commitment she has just made to serve her country. Cecil Beaton’s 1953 portrait of the Queen on the day of her coronation, photographed against a painted backdrop that only adds to the un­reality of the image, opens The Queen: Art and Image, London’s National Portrait Gallery’s celebration of the diamond jubilee.

Beaton’s portrait sits alongside a video screen looping the grainy footage of the coronation ceremony itself – the very first of many televised royal events yet to come. Here, the curator is priming visitors for a theme that runs throughout the exhibition: the mon­archy’s changing relationship with the media, and the greater scru­tiny and intrusion that eventually culminated in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

It’s not surprising, then, that some of the most revealing images are in fact those captured by the press. Dylan Martinez’s photo of the Queen in the aftermath of a fire that, in November 1992, destroyed part of Windsor Castle, home to the British monarchy for more than 1,000 years, is a case in point. Her face looks pale and stricken as she surveys the damage caused by the flames – her pained expression the same as any elderly matriarch faced with the devastation of the family home.

Few of the official portraits in the exhibition – from Pietro An­nigoni’s imperious full-length painting (1954-55) to Thomas Struth’s large-scale photographic portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (2011) – achieve, or attempt to portray, the kind of intimacy captured in Martinez’s candid shot. Instead, they seem to exaggerate the idea of the Queen’s cool detachment and reserve, a perception that has been at the root of the two notable instances of public opprobrium: in the aftermaths of the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster and of Princess Diana’s death in 1998.

Two images in particular are startling and striking. Not Jamie Reid’s irreverent artwork for the cover of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 sin­gle ‘God Save the Queen’, which has long since lost its ability to offend. Not Lucian Freud’s 2001 portrait that lacks the rawness and savagery of much of his work. Nor, even, Medusa, Guyanan artist Hew Locke’s sculpture, which uses gaudy beads and plastic toys to give an impression of the Queen in profile. For me, Eve Arnold’s surprisingly cheeky photo of a beaming Queen staring up at the sky, her head peeking out from underneath an umbrella, is one of the standout moments of the exhibition. And Lord Lichfield’s image of the Queen on the deck of the QE2 yacht, head flung back in laughter, sunglasses on, looking for all the world like a dark-haired Marilyn Monroe, depicts a free and relaxed, even sexual, side to the monarch rarely on display. Both are, in their own way, more shocking than those images that deliberately set out to be provocative.

It was never going to be easy to satisfy all tastes nor to depict the complexity of a reign that has spanned 60 years, straddled two mil­lennia, and witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and Britain’s struggle to find a new role in the world. The Queen: Art and Image is, if nothing else, a well-timed attempt to showcase the changing – and ever-constant – faces of the Queen.

About the author:

Elissa Jobson is the Editor of Global: the international briefing


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International