Those in charge of ensuring that the image of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is recognised throughout the world have surely done a good job. Who could be more widely known, through coins, stamps, photographs, radio recordings and television appearances, let alone mugs and tea-towels?
Bringing the perfect gift to the #PlatinumParty hosted by @RCT. These are the very first stamps from 1952 featuring Her Majesty The Queen's portrait photographed by Dorothy Wilding. pic.twitter.com/vz6vtn6YkP— The Postal Museum (@thepostalmuseum) May 6, 2022
It is perhaps surprising then that the most traditional means of depicting a monarch – painted portraiture – has served The Queen so patchily. The sort of glamourous realism required for a royal portrait was hardly the dominant style of painting in the second half of the twentieth century. But we should also consider how daunting such a commission would be, even if a Sargent or Lawrence were to undertake it.
How familiar is the sitter, how few the sittings, how great the expectations. So let us manage our expectations, cut the artists some slack and look afresh at painted portraits of The Queen in public collections.
One of the earliest and best is James Gunn's Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor of 1950, an inspired recreation of the genre created by Johann Zoffany in the eighteenth century. It conveys well-being through light, fine things, cheerful informality and just the right amount of ceremony. The subject is the royal family, with Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, rather than George VI, at the centre, in front of the hearth and serving the tea.
The Queen Mother is also the centre of John Wonnacott's The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait of 2000.
In this case the theme is continuity and the interaction between a great-grandmother and her grandchildren. In these examples HM The Queen plays a supporting role, which isn't an option in most royal images.
James Gunn's state portrait of 1953–1954 assembles all the necessary elements, but the easy animation of the conversation piece is lost.
The Queen wears the coronation dress designed by Sir Norman Hartnell embroidered with the rose, shamrock and thistle; behind her on the table is the Imperial State Crown with the sceptre. The Imperial robes are draped over her throne; these are the third and final set of robes donned at the coronation ceremony. The Queen wears the Diamond Diadem created for George IV in 1820, again featuring the rose, thistle and shamrock alternating with crosses. This has no official significance but is usually read as a surrogate crown.
Throughout the 1950s, as well as copying Gunn's image, many artists were employed painting something similar for the Embassies and town halls of Britain and the Commonwealth. They usually try to create the effect of an official image, without including any actual state regalia. Typically, the Queen wears a long white dress, with either the sash or the full robes of an order of chivalry, and a tiara. The best-in-class of this type is Hutchison's 1956 portrait for the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh, wearing the robes of the Order of the Thistle and the 'Vladimir Tiara'.
The stunning oil sketch in the National Galleries of Scotland has a fine likeness, open expression and painterly confidence.
The most original contributions to this stately genre of royal portraiture came from Pietro Annigoni. His famous 1955 portrait for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers (seen here in an excellent copy by Luciano Guarnieri) shows The Queen in the robes of the Order of the Garter, though bareheaded and against an idyllic landscape without palatial columns and curtains.
The style of the portrait is intended as a reproach to that painterliness admired above. Executed in egg tempera it substitutes rigorous modelling in light and shade for the cheery dab-dab of conventional post-Sargent portraiture. The result is sculptural in its believable and graceful structure and in the polish of the surface, the hair and drapery like bronze, the flesh like marble.
The other artist to feel this lofty impersonal quality of the face-on-the-coin is the photographer Dorothy Wilding, whose classic 1950s images of the Queen appear cast in some alloy of silver and gun-metal.
Today marks 70 years since Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne, following the death of her father, King George VI.— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) February 6, 2022
Her Majesty was proclaimed Queen throughout the UK and Commonwealth in the early hours of 6 February 1952.
Dorothy Wilding @RCT pic.twitter.com/eBfSmjO8SD
Annigoni sought to convey a magnificent loneliness, burdened by responsibility, of one condemned to watch the world from a palace window. The idea brings a gravity to the genre but feels more like Bronzino's aristocratic women or Giuseppe di Lampedusa's Prince than the home life of our own dear Queen.
In his 1969 image for the National Portrait Gallery, Annigoni takes the tragic dignity to another level, the Queen still bareheaded now wears the red robes of the order of the Bath over a red dress in a simply outlined pose, with the dignity and severity of a standing stone.
The idea derives from Piero della Francesca's Madonna della Misericordia, where the Virgin's robe shelters small-scale citizens of Borgo Sansepolcro like a tent. The sky of Annigoni's early portrait is clear and the landscape Narnian; in the later portrait the skies and the barren flat-lands are slate-grey. The result is certainly magnificent, but hardly conveys a monarch who managed a good-humoured accommodation with the 1960s.
Michael Noakes's 1977 portrait of the Queen in robes of the Order of the Bath for Manchester Town Hall shows us something more amiable and 'down to earth' – a phrase often used by those who met The Queen.
A long reign presents royal image-makers with the problem: to update or not to update. Elizabeth I decided against, creating the timeless mask of Gloriana. Queen Victoria aged gracefully in portraiture, but only commissioned a replacement state portrait in 1885 when she was in her sixties. Heinrich von Angeli's portrait (of which there are many copies) views The Queen and her throne from the side.
Whether or not inspired by Von Angeli, an important formal image of the late Queen Elizabeth employs a similar device. Richard Stone's 1991 portrait on Colchester Museum shows the familiar state robes and Diamond Diadem but the sitter and throne are seen in profile, as if we are eavesdropping on a pensive Queen, her face seen against an empty dark background.
During this present period of our national mourning, this portrait seems to have become an especially popular image.
What then happened to the easy informality of Gunn's Conversation Piece? For the first thirty years of the reign, it seems to have been present in photographs and film but not painted images. This changed in the 1980s, with the emergence of what might be called the 'Christmas Broadcast' portrait – the format half-length, seated and communicating with the viewer, the dress-code smart casual.
June Mendoza's 1983 portrait for the Royal Courts of Guernsey places the Queen in dress and pearls, seated on a Regency chair in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace.
Michael Leonard's portrait of 1985 for the National Portrait Gallery generalises the background, simplifies the composition and uses the corgi as an attribute and as a sort of 'icebreaker' in this most engaging of all portraits of The Queen.
This striking image brings us back to the central problem: our relationship with the monarch is now more 'interactive' than in the past. Most people's contact comes not through ceremonial performance but through functions where everything is festive, and everybody is on their best behaviour. The Queen is one part – even if the essential one – of a communal experience of pride and celebration.
To paraphrase Falstaff, The Queen is not only gracious in herself, but the cause that grace is in others. It is difficult to say what image the memory will take away from such an encounter, but it will not be one of sashes and tiaras.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, former Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures