A Painted Life | Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Author: Mark Peaker

In honor of the birth of Queen Elizabeth II

For many of us, the discovery of old photographs of oneself or family members afford one the opportunity to glimpse a reminder of how we once were. Poignant memories of youth, love and adventure are mixed with remembrances of loved ones now departed. A recent conversation with a friend whose grandmother was painted by John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was comically relieved by the fact that whilst they had a fridge magnet of the painting “grandmama was now hung in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts”!

Today we live in a world where an average of 1.5 billion photographs are taken daily, of which almost 800 million are uploaded to social media platforms to float around on clouds for eternity. It brings new meaning to Wordsworth’s line “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. Yet the art of portraiture remains, throughout history and across cultures, people have shown a fascination with faces, and in turn, with portrait representation. The depiction of an individual likeness is about identification, but more than that, it is a record of an interaction between an artist and a sitter, both of whom contribute to the portrait’s form and content. Far from being mirror reflections, portraits are complex creations of identity expressing power and declaring status to making statements about society at a given point in history.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II must be the single most visually recorded human being in history. Literally millions of images of her exist as she has lived through a century which has witnessed a media explosion. A simple Google search of Her Majesty will show almost 60 million images of the Queen in every guise, yet it remains her portraits that capture the essence of a woman we feel we know from the brushstrokes of an artist’s interpretation.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II

By Pietro Annigoni, 1955

By Pietro Annigoni, 1969

Perhaps the most iconic images of the Queen as Elizabeth II, Dei Gratia Britanniarum Regnorumque Suorum Ceterorum Regina, Consortionis Populorum Princeps, Fidei Defensor, to use her full title in Latin are the divisive works of Pietro Annigoni who completed a number of portraits of Queen Elizabeth II between 1954 and 1972. In 1955 he painted her for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and in 1969 for the National Portrait Gallery. The two portraits were united for the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition; The Queen: Art and Image, held to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2012.

The 1955 portrait was popular with the public and liked by the Queen but criticised for its romantic treatment and for prioritising Elizabeth’s role as the monarch over insights into her inner life. The 1969 portrait continued the theme of emphasising the royal role by placing Elizabeth against a featureless background that symbolised her sole responsibility as monarch. It was unpopular with the public.

Other famous images of the Queen include Lucian Freud’s portrait in 2001, Sergei Pavlenko’s work of 2000, Andrew Festing’s of 1999, Rupert Alexander’s 2010, Robert Wraith’s work of 1998 – which is rumoured to have been the most sittings the Queen attended for one piece.

By Lucian Freud, 2001

By Sergei Pavlenko, 2000

Controversial portraits of Her Majesty would include the 2006 ‘The Cabbage Patch Queen’ painting by George Condo and a work commissioned by the Commonwealth to mark her Golden Jubilee in 2002. Painted by Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, the picture shows the Queen, who is Head of the Commonwealth, standing at the window of a room in Buckingham Palace with a composite view of some of the best known sights of the Commonwealth in the background.

By George Condo, 2006

By Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, 2002

Of all the images of Her Majesty, for myself three capture her spirit magnificently. Sir Terence Cuneo’s official portrait for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 reflect the nervousness of a woman entering a life of committed service and Ralph Heiman’s wonderful The Coronation Theatre, Westminster Abbey: A Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II painted in 2012. This outstanding painting captures Her Majesty in the same place as her coronation reflecting back over her life of commitment; these two paintings are in a way, the bookends of her journey.

By Ralph Heiman, 2012

By Sir Terence Cuneo, 1953

My other favourite portrait is Chris Levine’s 2004 holographic portrait of the Queen entitled Equanimity which was commissioned by the island of Jersey. In the same way as Heiman, Levine reveals a sense of Her Majesty’s faith, as the artist comments “People will enjoy moving across and seeing the figure move. It’s rather haunting – a living presence.” A version of this painting was presented to the British Consulate in Hong Kong and can be viewed at the consulate.

By Chris Levine, 2004

Rolf Harris with Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday portrait

The Missing Painting

Controversy and intrigue also play their part in the portraits of Her Majesty. Rolf Harris’ 80th birthday portrait commissioned by the BBC mysteriously disappeared from public view when the entertainer became ‘a guest of Her Majesty’ after his incarceration. The painting was never well-received by critics but was voted the second-most-favoured portrait of the Queen by the British public (prior to Harris being imprisoned). Whilst never part of the Royal Collection, the paintings sudden disappearance caused great media interest and its whereabouts remain a mystery.

The life of Queen Elizabeth II has been photographed, filmed and painted for over seventy years, yet in a sense these images tell us everything and nothing. The real Elizabeth Windsor remains an enigma of her painted life.