The death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8th has sparked a world-wide response, a mixture of grief at the loss of a beloved leader contrasted with voices drawing attention to the role the monarch had in the continuation of violence and oppression against the people colonized by the British. There is much that could be said about the important historical and cultural figure, but as the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch, she was one of the most painted women in history. She was also queen during a period in which the creation and spread of images expanded exponentially and the ability to control one’s image became more difficult. What can we learn about her reign from looking at these portraits?
The History of British Royal Portraiture
Royal portraiture gained larger popularity in the United Kingdom during the Tudor period – first with Henry VII, and then even more so by his son, Henry VIII. The portraits commissioned by Henry VII adopted a greater sense of realism than previous royal portraits – previous images of the monarch opted for more symbolic and romanticized representations that idealized the sitter. These portraits of the monarchs also became an invaluable tool. While the depictions became more realistic, they still relied heavily on symbolism and iconography to send specific messages about themselves. This is seen especially in the portraiture of Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I – she utilized clothing, posture, and props to express ideas of empire and power to her subjects. We can see many of the same ideas promoted in the official images of the later queen, Queen Elizabeth II.
1953: One of the first portraits we get of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II is Cecil Beaton’s photograph, Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day (1952). Beaton was famous photography and theatre designer who often photographed the royal family. In this portrait, he sets the stage and provides the viewer with a fairy-tale image of a queen in her resplendent coronation robes. The background even includes a painted backdrop of the Gothic Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey. This sparkling image of a beautiful young, and powerful, queen aimed to provide hope and light to a Britain that was still recovering from the shadow of World War II.
1968: By the end of the 60’s, images of the queen in her grandeur was falling out of style as portrait photography by American artists such as Richard Avedon grew in popularity. In her last sitting with Cecil Beaton, the queen is dressed simply. Yet, symbolism abounds: she is dressed in an admiral cloak, a symbol of her role as the honorary head of the military, and behind her is a painting of ships – a possible reminder of both naval authority as well as the United Kingdom’s colonies throughout the world. This series of photographs later inspired Anne Leibowitz’s 2007 images of the queen.
1977: Perhaps one of the most iconic punk images in music history, the Sex Pistol’s cover art for their single “God Save the Queen,” used a black and white image of the queen (taken by royal photographer Peter Gruegeon) to send a different message – one of anarchy and anti-royal sentiments. When asked about the song, singer Johnny Rotten said “You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up with them being mistreated.” With her eyes covered, the image suggests the queen is blind to the needs of her people.
1985: Andy Warhol was eager to create a portrait of the queen and after receiving a guarded, but not dismissive, reply from the Palace (“The Queen would certainly not wish to put any obstacles in Mr. Warhol’s way…[but] she would not dream of offering any comment on the idea”), he created a number of images of the Queen as part of his “Reigning Queens” series. The vibrant colors used in the series and exaggerated details drew comparisons with Warhol’s series made decades earlier of New York’s drag queens – perhaps the sort of thing the Palace had hoped to avoid with their hesitant agreement. Warhol’s portraits address themes of celebrity and consumerism and after 30 years as queen, it was difficult to deny the idea that she had become a celebrity, carefully portrayed and presented to the public for their consumption.
1997: In his portrait commissioned by the Royal Society of the Arts to mark their 50th anniversary of association with the Queen, Justin Mortimer created a vibrant and unusual portrait of the monarch. Her head floats above her body and Mortimer noted that it symbolized that she was “from another era…I don’t have anything in common with her aside being British.” The 1990s saw a dramatic increase in the scrutiny of the royal family, particularly in the case of Princess Diana. Created in the aftermath of the death of the Princess and the widespread grief and dissatisfaction with the Queen, the painting joins in as many were asking “what is she for? What does she represent?”
2004: Chris Levine and holographer Rob Munday were commissioned by the island of Jersey to create a 3D portrait of the Queen in celebration of the island’s 800 years of allegiance to the crown. The portrait was a step towards bringing technology into the world of portraiture. Over 10,000 images were taken and combined to create a three-dimensional image of the queen. This portrait illustrated just how drastically the technology of imagemaking had changed in the then fifty years the Queen had been on the throne.
2018: In a photo better suited for a tabloid, the Queen is seated beside Anna Wintour at London Fashion week in 2018. Images such as this are emblematic of the dramatic shift in photographs. Rather than the carefully posed images filled with iconography, we return to that idea of realism with candid photographs that allows more personal access to the subject. Yet, personal, unposed, “real” photos of a Queen who for many feels distant and unnecessary can become a tool as well.
2022: In honor of her Platinum Jubilee in June 2022, a new portrait of the Queen was released. She sits in the window at Windsor Castle, dressed in a pale blue suit and pearls. In contrast to the first portrait discussed, she does not wear any regalia: no crown, no robe, just her. Her Platinum Jubilee marked seventy years on the throne, the longest reign in UK history and making her the second longest recorded reigning monarch.
What might this portrait say about the woman depicted? How might this image send a message about her and her reign?