When a new portrait of the Queen is unveiled it joins a catalogue of work that began in 1933 when the seven year old Princess Elizabeth sat for Philip Alexius de László, who had been commissioned by her mother, the then Duchess of York to paint the first portrait of Princess Elizabeth.
Since then, the Queen has sat for a total of 139 official portraits, only two of them with the Duke of Edinburgh. Lucien Freud, who controversially painted the Queen in 2000-01 in his characteristic unflattering style, nevertheless said he tried- no doubt like many other artists - to focus and convey the ‘inner likeness’ behind such a recognisable face.
Royal portraiture did not always have such a human focus and as Jennifer Scott says in her 2010 book, The Royal Portrait: Image and Impact, historically royal portraits have included ‘images used to legitimise claims to the throne, reinforce dynastic ambitions, cement political alliances and accompany proposals of marriage.’
Historically the most important portrait of a monarch was created at the time of their coronation but during the Queen’s reign the many portraits and images created since 1954 have had a number of purposes which includes perpetuating the Queen’s role within the Commonwealth as head of state to diverse cultures.
A previous exhibition of the Queen’s portraits by the Royal Collection Trust at Windsor highlighted the range of artists who have created portraits of the Queen, from Cecil Beaton to Andy Warhol, and the different media in which she has been displayed, from photographs to sculpture.
Unfortunately, not all of the artists’ attempts at portraiture have been successful in portraying either a good likeness or as Pietro Annigoni, who painted the Queen twice in 1969 and 1991 describes it, ‘the regal dignity of a queen but also as she appeared to me – a beautiful young woman.’ During one sitting the Queen told the artist Richard Stone, ‘One would wish to consign some of them to the basement.’
Whatever Her Majesty’s views of the results, during her life the Queen has granted access for more than two portraits a year in a variety of styles and media, including Justin Mortimer’s abstract 1998 hologram and a series of photographs by Vogue photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Portraits of the Queen can be commissioned by individuals or organisations who must then seek access for sittings. Once sittings are scheduled the artist can consult with the Palace on the setting, technical requirements and the style of clothing the Queen will wear.
Limited time is always a factor and artists must deal with having only a few hours with their subject. In 1954 Australian artist William Dargie, who created the impressionist Wattle Portrait of the new Queen wearing Australia’s coronation gift of a diamond brooch in a wattle design, had seven hours of sittings as did Richard Stone for another portrait in 1989.
When Lucien Freud had his opportunity, his painstaking method and requirement to paint from life meant he had to use a small canvas measuring just 23.5 x 15.2cm (9″ x 6″) as he would have been unable to complete a larger work during the scheduled hours of sittings.
The artist’s view of their subject and the nature of the commission, which can range from an official national portrait to a new image for a stamp, will dictate their approach and style of portrait. Annigoni’s 1969 portrait, shown above, is only one of many in which the Queen has been painted wearing her Garter robes, with or without a tiara. In others Her Majesty has, at the artist’s request, worn evening dress or day clothes.
When Annie Leibovitz took a series of photographs to mark a state visit to the United States she requested both evening dress and Garter robes but asked Her Majesty to remove her tiara for one shot in the robes which resulted in a less formal image. Ralph Heimans’ Diamond Jubilee portrait of a pensive Queen in Westminster Abbey at the site of her coronation also conveys, as Annigoni found essential to a royal portrait, the regality of the monarch, even though it was painted from photographs due to time constraints.
In May 2013 a remarkable photographic portrait of Her Majesty by Justin Calder was unveiled. Calder had photographed the Queen three years before at Balmoral, standing in a field of heather against the background of a stormy sky and distant hills, wearing the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara with emerald drops and the deep green robes of the Order of the Thistle. The image was created for inclusion in Keepers, a book by Alastair Bruce, which was published to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation.
The photographer chose the setting to echo Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn’s portraits of Scottish clan chiefs, an approach which not only harks back to the days of royal portraiture as a display of the symbols of power, but portrays the Queen’s role in Scotland, just as the 1954 Dargie Wattle portrait was no less effective in portraying Her Majesty as Queen of Australia.
Since the Queen’s coronation artists have styled their portraits of her to add to the iconography of monarchy. All have seen and interpreted their subject in different ways and no doubt will continue to do so but the measure of at least one artist’s success is evident. In 1954 Her Majesty requested a copy of the William Dargie Wattle Portrait which remains in her personal collection.