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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Jones

Idealised, gilded or defaced, Queen Elizabeth's image dominated our age

Queen Elizabeth II portraits by Andy Warhol on display in the Lower Library at Windsor Castle, after being acquired by the Royal Collection
Queen Elizabeth II portraits by Andy Warhol on display in the Lower Library at Windsor Castle, after being acquired by the Royal Collection. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

We carried her in our pockets and purses, jangled her and handed her over, put her in slot machines and bought soft drinks with her. The first image of Queen Elizabeth II that I can remember looking at was her profile on the new decimal coinage we were shown in infant school. The face on her coins was ineffable and timeless, and dominated our age.

The monarch’s face on a coin is a guarantee of value that connects the Queen with Roman emperors, with King Offa; modern British money carries on it an icon of rule as old as coinage itself. The power and authority of the Queen in her depictions, from cash to art, from films to photographs, from paintings to novels, was as charismatic as that of any historical king, queen, tsar or khan. In real life, Elizabeth II was the model of a constitutional ruler, standing apart from her governments, respecting to the letter the limits of her role in a democracy. In our imaginations, however, she was absolute.

If a constitutional monarch is a “figurehead”, Queen Elizabeth carried out that function as fully as she executed all her other royal duties. She provided a face for the nation, like a carved totem on the front of a sailing ship that never blinked as the seas grew stormy or flaked away when they were calm.

The Royal Mint unveils the Queen’s fifth coin portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015
The Royal Mint unveils the Queen’s fifth coin portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Photograph: Mikael Buck/Rex Shutterstock

If anyone doubts that British people in the reign of Elizabeth II beheld her with religious reverence, consider Jamie Reid’s notorious picture of her on the sleeve of the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single God Save the Queen. Over a portrait by the romantic royal photographer Cecil Beaton, the punk artist created a vicious Dadaist collage. Cut-out newsprint words spelled out GOD Save THE QUEEN across her eyes, with the band’s name across her mouth. It was the most iconoclastic portrait of Elizabeth ever to enter mainstream culture – as an outrage, denounced by the conservative press in her silver jubilee year.

Yet the word “iconoclasm” says it all. Iconoclastic acts are usually motivated by religious feelings. In the Reformation, mobs destroyed images of the saints to purify religion. Their violence was necessary because they feared the power of these sacred pictures and carvings, not because they were immune. If you don’t care about something, you don’t need to deface it. In 1977, only one image in British life was sacred enough for the Sex Pistols to defile: the face of the Queen. The one great moment of anti-royal art in modern Britain was in reality the clearest acknowledgment of what the Queen was, and is, in our imaginations: a national divinity.

Jamie Reid’s design for God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, released in 1977
Jamie Reid’s design for God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, released in 1977. Photograph: Alamy

Thirty-five years on, in 2012, the diamond jubilee was marked by Madness performing Our House on the roof of Buckingham Palace, a moment of royalist consensus across generations and styles that consigned punk to history. Vast crowds of all ages stood in dismal rain along the banks of the Thames that summer to catch a glimpse of the Queen in person, passing by on a boat, her image magnified on giant screens along the river. This collective desire to look on the physical presence of royalty was a revelation of how much the British cherished that faded image.

No royal progress in the age of Henry VIII or the first Queen Elizabeth was more intense than the great public appearances of this queen from her coronation in 1953, to her diamond jubilee, to her virtual address to the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021 when she regally manifested to sacralise and bless the fight for the planet.

Yet by this year, her Platinum Jubilee was marked by her absence, a no-show at her own festivities, leaving a space into which adulation and affection poured. Many may have partied to stop themselves wondering what the vanishing of her public image meant. The last photograph of her at Balmoral, still doing the duty of a constitutional monarch, meeting her last Prime Minister, showed us a frail figure.

Beaton caught her special aura in his coronation photograph taken on 2 June 1953. Gold suffuses this image. Elizabeth sits in her coronation robes, wearing the imperial state crown, set with the Black Prince’s ruby, as she holds her gold sceptre and orb in front of a luminous vista of the fan vaulting of Westminster Abbey. A burst of white light around the Queen’s young yet strong face seems to transfigure her – an effect only the cinematic vision of a Beaton could make work in the 20th century. His portrait of her is perhaps the greatest.

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robes, photographed by Cecil Beaton.
Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation robes, photographed by Cecil Beaton. Photograph: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The monarch has two bodies in medieval thought: one human, one sacred. Just so Beaton’s Queen, who is at once a very real and likeable person and a monarch enshrined in her regalia among her forefathers. She looks what she convinced her people she was – a divinely appointed ruler for the TV age.

In Sue Townsend’s novel The Queen and I (1992), the Black Prince’s ruby falls out of the imperial state crown as it is hurled off the balcony of Buckingham Palace by Britain’s first republican prime minister. Written in the early 1990s at the start of the Queen’s toughest decade, this is the tale of “the Queen’s nightmare”. On the night of the 1992 election, the sleeping monarch imagines what might happen if a republican were elected. The Windsors are kicked out of their palaces and forced to live on a run-down council estate; the comedy comes out of their divergent responses to the disaster of having to live like everyone else.

Even when they imagined her downfall, the artists and writers of Elizabeth II’s reign could not really feel antagonism towards her. Townsend, just like Jamie Reid, confirms the majesty of the Queen by the very thrill and hilarity she gets out of lese-majesty.

In a painting he started in 2000 and finished in 2001, Lucian Freud was the only official portraitist who recorded the Queen apparently ravaged and haggard after the harsh years of the breakdown of her children’s marriages, fires at Hampton Court and Windsor, and finally Diana’s death. Freud once again confirms the mythic power of the Queen’s image by insulting it: his painting seems scandalous simply because it reveals an ordinary, ageing, worried face.

Lucian Freud Painting the Queen (2001) by David Dawson
Lucian Freud painting the Queen (2001) by David Dawson. Photograph: David Dawson/GAC/Crown Copyright

By 2006, when Stephen Frears’ film The Queen dramatised the darkest days of her reign following the death of Diana, the tensions of the time were already old news and Helen Mirren’s royal performance celebrated the monarch’s reserve: taciturn and guarded, she learns from events and once more emerges as unquestionably regal. Mirren, who was to make the Queen something of a repertory turn, caught the unknowability of her person in the midst of a comedy of manners.

Reticent and formal in her public speeches, Elizabeth II avoided ever becoming “one of us”. She was closest to it early in her reign, when photographers caught the mother with her family, the fashionable traveller in sunglasses, the smiling monarch presenting the World Cup to Bobby Moore.

Yet it would be wrong to think that in the reign of Elizabeth II, formal representations of royalty gave way to a new informal image. The portrayal of monarchs and their families as just like you and me goes back to the 18th century, when artists including Zoffany and Gainsborough in Britain, and Goya in Spain, portrayed monarchs as if they were middle-class people, or at least gentry. In the Georgian age, through art and their behaviour, the British royal family became approachable and popular.

Queen Elizabeth by Pietro Annigoni at the National Portrait Gallery
Queen Elizabeth by Pietro Annigoni at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Queen Elizabeth II’s achievement was the opposite of what it may seem. Of course, in the television age, there were documentaries, Christmas broadcasts, a more direct visual and verbal line of communication than ever before between monarch and people. But what made this queen so enduringly charismatic was how much she resisted informality. In this age, it could all have been allowed to hang out. In the real-life soap opera that was royal marriage for the next generation, it did. The Queen, however, always stood back from full acceptance of tell-all modernity. The only time she confessed to a bad year, in 1992, she expressed her anguish in Latin. It was appropriate, for she was no vernacular monarch. She was always in some sense the face on the coin – unchanging and universal.

This makes her image in art and culture both coolly impressive and hard to pin down. Portraitists from Pietro Annigoni, who first painted the Queen in 1954-55 standing in dark robes, lost in thought, against a melancholy landscape, to Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of her in a darkling winter wood in 2007, saw a solitary and serious figure.They did not portray Elizabeth as a pal or an eccentric or a character; they portrayed her as a sovereign. The person they met, the person she was, never melted into democratic playfulness. This was the Queen and her artists duly did service to her image and bowed out of the room.

The most popular portrait of the Queen may well have been Andy Warhol’s set of multicoloured silkscreen prints made in 1985. The artist also portrayed Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in a similar fashion – that portrait hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum while Warhol’s Elizabeths hang in the National Portrait Gallery. Warhol was not commissioned to portray our Queen; he just did so because she interested him. Like Marilyn, like Jackie, like all his stars, she was an aloof modern icon, someone to worship from afar.

Warhol understood religion. He was from an eastern European religious background (and a practising Catholic). Just as his Marilyn Diptych finds a religious image in a dead film star, he saw the sacred in Britain’s love affair with its queen. He also, of course, understood the modern media. He saw how it could create a magical compound of intimacy and remoteness. It was that compound, at once bringing her into everyone’s homes and keeping her at a charismatic distance, that made Queen Elizabeth II one of the great cultural phenomena of the age.

In the end, the representations of her that mattered were not painted or even photographed. They were broadcast on television. From the fragile magnificence of her coronation, one of the founding events of British television, to her agreement to appear to leap out of a helicopter with James Bond in the live broadcast of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, the Queen ruled television. Warhol saw it. So did Danny Boyle, concocting that Olympics stunt.

Footage featured in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, with Daniel Craig as James Bond escorting the Queen through the corridors of Buckingham Palace.
Footage featured in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, with Daniel Craig as James Bond escorting the Queen through the corridors of Buckingham Palace. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

She jumps, she lands gracefully. She’s in on the joke, but what does she really think? A fleeting smile is the only clue. Play back the footage as many times as you like. The Queen is not giving up her secrets. Boyle’s James Bond joke once more confirmed the magic of this Queen, so unshakeably royal she could in her last years play with the image of regality and age and yet not for one moment become one of us.

In the end she outlived Bond himself. While one national treasure after another was blown up, literally or figuratively, in an era of questioning and dissent, she stood more granite-like than Daniel Craig and came through the smoke intact. Her image intensified as her real activities diminished, not just because of her own advanced years but in the global pandemic that turned the world upside down in the seventh decade of her reign. She proved a Zoom natural. Warm and smiling on a computer screen, she remained as enigmatic as ever – literally, remote – while communicating the kind of community spirit she had shown as a young military driver and mechanic in the 1940s. This venerable and venerated ruler was a living link with the last generation to face true crisis.

We were her subjects. She was our Queen. What on earth will we become without her?

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