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Elizabeth II is perhaps the most famous monarch of modern times. Ascending the throne in 1952, Elizabeth II is the longest-lived and longest-reigning British monarch in history at a staggering 68 years (and counting). She is also the longest-serving female head of state in world history.

Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II 1987

Tim Graham (b.1948)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Alongside her regal duties to the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Queen of an additional 15 sovereign states that, combined with the United Kingdom, encompass a population of around 151 million people.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21st April 1926 to the Duke and Duchess of York, who would go on to become George VI and Elizabeth respectively.

King George VI

King George VI 1924

Reginald Grenville Eves (1876–1941)

National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother 1924

Reginald Grenville Eves (1876–1941)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Third in line to the throne, Elizabeth was never expected to be Queen as her father was only the second eldest son of the ruling monarch (George V).

However, in 1936, George V died suddenly leaving Edward to take up the throne. Then, scandalously, Edward VIII abdicated later that same year so that he could marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson.

King Edward VIII (1894–1972)

King Edward VIII (1894–1972) (later the Duke of Windsor) c.1936

George Boucas (1879–1941)

Government Art Collection

Elizabeth's father became king, succeeding as George VI.

Now, rather extraordinarily, the 10-year-old Elizabeth became 'heir presumptive' – although she was first in line to the throne, because she was a woman, she was never 'heir apparent'.

HRH The Princess Elizabeth

HRH The Princess Elizabeth 1933

William Lamb (1893–1951)

ANGUSalive

Three years after the 'Year of the Three Kings', the Second World War broke out. Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret relocated to Royal Lodge, Windsor, until moving to Windsor Castle, where they lived for most of the next five years.

The royal family's refusal to evacuate abroad during the war was well received by the public. This apparent desire to share in the fate of the nation sparked the emergence of more informal artistic presentations of the monarchy as seen in this tea-time scene captured by Scottish painter Herbert James Gunn.

Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor

Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor 1950

Herbert James Gunn (1893–1964)

National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1947, Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. Their engagement was slightly controversial as Philip had no financial standing, was foreign-born (though a British subject), and had sisters who had married German noblemen with Nazi links. To marry Elizabeth, Philip had to give up his Greek and Danish titles and officially convert from Greek Orthodoxy to Anglicanism.

Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth (b.1926), and the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921)

Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth (b.1926), and the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921) 1949

Edward Irvine Halliday (1902–1984)

Britannia Royal Naval College

Elizabeth and Philip were married on 20th November 1947 at Westminster Abbey. As Britain had not yet completely recovered from the devastation of the war, Elizabeth required ration coupons to buy the material for her gown. As of November 2020, Elizabeth and Philip will have been married for 73 years.

Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh 1987

Tim Graham (b.1948)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, Prince Charles, in 1948 (heir apparent since his mother's accession in 1952). Their second child, Princess Anne, followed two years later in 1950.

HRH The Prince of Wales (b.1948)

HRH The Prince of Wales (b.1948) 2003

David Griffiths (b.1939)

Cardiff Council
HRH Princess Anne (b.1950), The Princess Royal

HRH Princess Anne (b.1950), The Princess Royal 2004

Norman Edgar (b.1948)

The Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh

From 1951 onwards, George VI's health declined, and Elizabeth frequently stood in for him at public events. The King died in 1952 and Elizabeth acceded to the throne, at the young age of 25.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) 1953

George Henry Paulin (1888–1962)

Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture

Elizabeth's coronation was held on 2nd June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.

This glorious occasion was televised to an estimated 20 million people around the United Kingdom and parties erupted throughout the country to celebrate the new Queen.

The Procession Passing the Queen Victoria Memorial, Coronation

The Procession Passing the Queen Victoria Memorial, Coronation 1953

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887–1976)

Government Art Collection

Alongside the Imperial State Crown, the Queen wore a white silk dress embroidered with floral emblems of the 11 countries of the Commonwealth at the time.

This design symbolised the 'unity of the Commonwealth', an enduring passion of the Queen's, throughout her reign.

Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)*

Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)*

Waugh

Durham University

Following her coronation, Elizabeth and her husband embarked on a seven-month round-the-world tour, visiting 13 countries.

The Queen would go on to make hundreds of overseas visits. At home and abroad, the Queen had to maintain political neutrality, but she made several historic and significant visits, including the first to Berlin of a British monarch since before the First World War. She was also the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and New Zealand.

State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ethiopia, 1965

State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ethiopia, 1965 c.1965–1966

Johannes Tessema (active c.1930–c.1970)

Government Art Collection

In 1960 and 1964, the Queen gave birth to her two youngest sons, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, respectively. Their births marked the only times that the Queen has not performed the State Opening of Parliament during her reign, due to pregnancy.

Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament, 1962

Elizabeth II at the State Opening of Parliament, 1962 1962

Alfred Kingsley Lawrence (1893–1975)

Parliamentary Art Collection

In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee, marking 25 years on the throne. The UK was in a state of political turmoil, with an unpopular government led by Harold Wilson, and many people were suffering economic hardship.

Jubilee Offer

Jubilee Offer 1977

Andrew Logan (b.1945)

Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture

Punk rock was also becoming increasingly popular and the Sex Pistols' anti-monarchist song God Save the Queen reached number two in the Official UK Charts.

Elizabeth II Receiving the Jubilee Address in Westminster Hall, 1977

Elizabeth II Receiving the Jubilee Address in Westminster Hall, 1977 1977

Julian Barrow (1939–2013)

Parliamentary Art Collection

Despite growing republican sentiments in some corners, the Queen remained a popular figure and celebrations took place across the country. The Queen and her family increasingly posed for more informal portraits to play down the remoteness of their special position in society. This portrait by Michael Leonard is one such example, with the Queen cuddling one of her beloved corgis.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II 1985–1986

Michael Leonard (b.1933)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Popular support for the Queen continued to increase throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, the Queen had her so-called annus horribilis – horrible year – during which the marriages of two of her children, Anne and Andrew, broke down, a book detailing Princess Diana's unhappiness and collapsing marriage to Prince Charles became a national bestseller, and a large fire devastated Windsor Castle.

In this portrait painted in 1991, Richard Stone depicts the Queen looking pensively to the left against a black background, as if foreshadowing the hardship that was to come the following year.

Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) 1991

Richard Stone (b.1951)

Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: Colchester Collection

In 1997, the royal family was rocked once again which the sudden death of Princess Diana in a car crash.

Diana, Princess of Wales

Diana, Princess of Wales 1981

Bryan Organ (b.1935)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The royal family's desire to grieve in private was met with great criticism from the British press (and by extension, the public), resulting in the Queen doing a live television tribute the day before Diana's funeral. The Queen's popularity dipped slightly but after her address, much of the public hostility evaporated.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

June Mendoza (b.1924)

Alderney Island Hall

At the turn of the millennia, the image and shape of the royal family had shifted significantly from the beginning of Elizabeth's reign.

Lucian Freud and Queen Elizabeth II

Lucian Freud and Queen Elizabeth II 2001

David Dawson (b.1960)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The way the world interacted with the royals and vice versa had changed and the younger generation of royals – primarily, the Queen's grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry – took a more casual approach to their royal duties.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; Prince Henry of Wales

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; Prince Henry of Wales 2009

Nicola Jane ('Nicky') Philipps (b.1964)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait

The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait 2000

John Wonnacott (b.1940)

National Portrait Gallery, London

In 2002, the Queen celebrated 50 years on the throne, though this was in part clouded by the death of her mother and sister earlier that same year.

Ten years later, the Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and, on 21st December 2015, she surpassed her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the longest-lived British monarch in history. In 2017, the Queen became the first British monarch to commemorate a Sapphire Jubilee (65 years) and to celebrate a platinum wedding anniversary.

Queen Elizabeth II*

Queen Elizabeth II* 2007

Frances Segelman (b.1949)

The Scouts Heritage Service

On 21st April 2020, the Queen turned 94 years old. The Queen's official birthday on 13th June 2020 will be markedly different from previous years as the Covid-19 pandemic prevents the typical celebrations – such as Trooping the Colour – from going ahead.

Trooping the Colour

Trooping the Colour 1958–9

William Patrick Roberts (1895–1980)

Tate

Despite the lack of physical celebrations, it is still worth marvelling at the extraordinary life and reign of Elizabeth II.

HM Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

HM Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

Andrew Festing (b.1941)

The Royal Hospital Chelsea

Since Elizabeth ascended the throne, she has seen a total of 14 Prime Ministers, the decolonisation of the British Empire, the incredible advancement and development of technology, as well as countless other historically and socially significant events across the world.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926)

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) 2006

Tony Butler

Royal Academy of Music

The world may have changed dramatically during Elizabeth II's epic reign, but her presence on the global stage has remained an esteemed and powerful constant.

Flora Doble, Operations Officer at Art UK