As London gets set for Jubilee fever, the National Portrait Gallery has a major exhibition of portraits of our monarch. The Queen: Art and Image features some of the most remarkable images of Elizabeth II made during her reign, from formal portraits to works of art by contemporary artists. We asked curator, Paul Moorhouse to pick his favourites.
Dorothy Wilding first photographed the Queen in 1937 at the Coronation of her father, King George VI. She subsequently made portraits of the Queen on significant occasions. To mark her accession, Elizabeth posed for the photographer fifty-nine times, wearing gowns by Norman Hartnell. Copies of the best images were sent to every embassy in the world and appeared on banknotes and millions of stamps.
Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, Annigoni’s second portrait of the Queen was unveiled in 1970 to enormous public and press interest. Reaction focused on the contrast with Annigoni’s earlier portrait, which presented a romantic, idealised view. The new portrait adopted a radically different approach. The artist explained: ‘I did not want to paint her as a film star; I saw her as a monarch, alone in the problems of her responsibility.’
Commissioned by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Justin Mortimer’s portrait of the Queen was based on drawings made from life and photographs. The public response to the artist’s use of flattened, cut-out shapes that seemed to separate the monarch’s head from her body was adverse. However, at a time when the Queen was actively seeking a more modern image, Mortimer’s portrait seemed to strike a chord. The Queen later commissioned the artist to paint her Lord Chamberlain.
The Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto studied photography in Los Angeles. This strangely disconcerting image of the Queen, at once lifelike and artificial, actually shows a wax mannequin. It forms part of a series of photographs of wax effigies and tableaux in public attractions such as Madame Tussaud’s in London. Sugimoto’s ‘portrait’ of the Queen is an abstraction, an image of something that is itself unreal.
In 2004, as part of Jersey’s celebration of its 800-year relationship with the monarchy, Chris Levine was commissioned to make a portrait of the Queen. During the sittings that ensued, each lengthy photographic exposure took eight seconds. Resting between shots, the Queen briefly closed her eyes, a moment preserved by this image. The resulting portrait seems poised between the public persona and the private individual, extremes explored by artists throughout the Queen’s reign.
In May 1965 the Queen visited Germany, the first British sovereign to do so in over fifty years. In Berlin she was cheered and her name chanted. The following year the German artist Gerhard Richter made two lithographs of the Queen, entitled Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. In common with much of his work at that time, the prints were based on a published photograph. The original image is blurred, emphasising a sense of surface appearance obscuring the underlying reality.
The Queen Art and Image
Until 21 October
National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, WC2H 0HE
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
£6.60, conchs £5.50