How artists portrayed Queen Elizabeth II through her reign

Written by Nick Glass, CNN

It was one of those photogenic, albeit historically insignificant, moments where one (authentic) icon met another. Queen Elizabeth II met Marilyn Monroe at a film premiere in London in 1956. The women probably had little in common other than their age (the two were then 30), their worldwide fame and their glamour. A cameraman recorded the moment for posterity and, luckily, Andy Warhol went on to serigraph the two women.
Warhol’s serigraphs of Marilyn are among the first he ever published, executed in the months immediately following her death in 1962. His serigraphs of the Queen, however, are among the last and are lesser known. They were produced in 1985, as part of his “Reigning Queens” series, just two years before his own death.

With the serigraph of the queen, Warhol – as always – toyed with the idea of ​​celebrity and dissected the relationship between the subject and the public figure. The image is based on an official photographic portrait taken in 1975, shortly before his 49th birthday. The queen, wearing a tiara, has blue eyes, regal and beautiful, but also outlined and abstract in color blocks.

The image is contrived, seductive and memorable. The prints – some of which were dusted with diamond dust and were released in different colors in sets of four – came in a limited edition of 40. Better late than never, the Royal Collection Trust has finally acquired a set for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Photographs of Queen Elizabeth, taken by Dorothy Wilding in 1952, on display as part of the 2012 ‘The Queen: Portraits of a Monach’ exhibition at Windsor Castle. Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Images via Getty Images

By making serigraphs of her, Warhol bequeathed us an image for the history of art and – one could say – of eternal royal glamour. As with Marilyn, we end up with Elizabeth as a Warhol icon. Just as Henry VIII was immortalized (huge, menacing, thick-necked, pasty-faced and pig-eyed) by his court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, so could this prove to be a defining image of Elizabeth II in half a millennium? Warhol evidently felt a celebrity kinship with his subject, once remarking that he wanted to be “as famous as the Queen of England”.

As British historian David Cannadine once noted, the Queen was “probably the most visually depicted and depicted individual that has ever existed through the entire span of human history”. She reigned so long that one can only venture to guess the number of images.

Propaganda images of Mao Zedong (who was also a subject of Warhol between 1972 and 1973) were widely circulated during his lifetime, but he was always made to look like him: the benevolent founding father of the Chinese nation. With the Queen, however, the images vary in likeness and medium — paintings, photographs, sculptures, and holograms, as well as that famously irreverent record cover for the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single “God Save the Queen,” where his eyes and mouth are obliterated by the song and band names.
The queen never had a court painter as such. The closest candidate was probably the Italian artist Pietro Annigoni, who painted a portrait of her between 1954 and 1955 and again in 1969. His first portrait of the young queen particularly captured the public imagination. Framed against what might pass for an Italian Renaissance landscape and clad in garter dresses, she stares dreamily but confidently beyond us.
"Queen Elizabeth II" by Pietro Annigoni was commissioned by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery in 1969.

“Queen Elizabeth II” by Pietro Annigoni was commissioned by the trustees of the National Portrait Gallery in 1969. Credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

American photographer Annie Leibowitz portrayed her similarly half a century later, in 2007. Masked and solitary, the silver-haired matriarch stares straight into the camera lens. By then, she had gotten used to it all, having been photographed endlessly. She had also been delivering Christmas messages on television since 1957.
During his reign, the formal painted portrait was largely replaced by photography. And initially, artifice reigned. Society photographer Dorothy Wilding, who took the accession photographs in 1952, focused on Elizabeth’s youth and beauty and had some hand-colored prints. Fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, who took the coronation photos in 1953 (and was practically a court photographer except for his name), went even further. He advocates a magical vision, opting for theatrical sets and a few judicious touch-ups.

Later British photographers – including Antony Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon and the Queen’s former brother-in-law; and Patrick Lichfield, one of her cousins ​​and the Earl of Lichfield – opted for informality and naturalism, and we got to know her a little better in the process. We were offered glimpses of the Queen and her family in domestic situations, both at play and at work. Television crews began to have unusual access for documentaries.

Society photographer Cecil Beaton, who took this picture of Queen Elizabeth with her bridesmaids on her coronation day in 1953, captured many of the late monarch's most important occasions.

Society photographer Cecil Beaton, who took this picture of Queen Elizabeth with her bridesmaids on her coronation day in 1953, captured many of the late monarch’s most important occasions. Credit: Print Collector/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

But perhaps the real revolution in our perception of the Queen came from members of the press – and their telephoto lenses. They provided some of the most intimate and intimate walking moments. We could see her react in shock to the fire at Windsor Castle in 1992, solemnly and silently survey the sea of ​​floral tributes to Princess Diana outside the gates of Buckingham Palace in 1997 and shed a tear at the funeral of her sister in 2002. These images made her seem more human and sympathetic.

Two of the great (and most commercially successful) artists of the 20th century both approached portraits of the Queen, but in very different ways. In 1967 Gerhard Richter made an oil painting based on a published photograph. (The previous year he had captured her in a lithograph.)
An observer takes a closer look at Gerhard Richter's painting of the Queen from 1967.

An observer takes a closer look at Gerhard Richter’s painting of the Queen from 1967. Credit: Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images

As in the manner of the German artist, his image was slightly blurred, the colors and his features exaggerated. The queen looks unreal, if not surreal. She’s still recognizable but somehow creepy not herself; she looks uncomfortable, as if suppressing a nervous laugh. It’s unclear why Richter painted her like that – he never gave an explanation.

In 2000, Lucian Freud started painting the Queen. It was not a commission in the formal sense. The Queen’s former private secretary (and Freud’s friend), Robert Fellowes, had pursued the idea for some years. It took a lot of negotiation, but when Fellowes retired in early 1999, Freud finally agreed to do a portrait.

The sessions were spread over several months, between May 2000 and December 2001. At the start, the artist was 77 years old; the queen was 74 years old. The result, painted in heavy impasto, was tiny (just 9 by 6 inches) and, predictably, controversial. Freud’s pictorial forensic eye was unwavering.

Lucian Freud's painting of the queen seemed the antithesis of earlier, romanticized depictions of the queen.

Lucian Freud’s painting of the queen seemed the antithesis of earlier, romanticized depictions of the queen. Credit: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

Freud had asked her to wear the diadem crown, as seen in some of Wilding’s photographs. The crown is worn slightly inclined. She is pensive, a little downcast, a little tired perhaps. She has seen and been through a lot. The painting was – as many newspapers pointed out – unflattering, the antithesis of Annigoni’s dreamy 1950s portraiture. Freud donated the painting to the Royal Collection. The Queen has never commented on it publicly.

Would it have been to the taste of Prince Philip? Probably not. Himself an amateur painter, he knew precisely what he liked. Her private collection includes a painting of the Queen on horseback at the Trooping the Color ceremony. It was painted by his friend, English post-impressionist artist and royal favorite Edward Seago. In the uniform of the Grenadier Guards (white feathered hat and red coat), the Queen looked simply and recognizably gorgeous.

Top image: A print of Queen Elizabeth by Andy Warhol being adjusted by a Bonhams Auctioneers employee.

.

Leave a Comment