Whether you are a staunch royalist or just a fan of four day bank holidays, living in the UK means that there is no escaping the image of Queen Elizabeth II. From banknotes and stamps to commissioned royal portraits, her likeness is just as much a part of daily life as your morning coffee.
Considering royal portraiture is part of a long standing political and art historical tradition, used to capture and immortalise the monarchy for centuries, this is perhaps unsurprising. But, with the current queen, it is also something more. As a sitter, Queen Elizabeth is captivating.
There is a sense of reservedness, of dignified secrecy that has defined her portrayal throughout her lifetime. Beautiful and regal, sure, but what draws artists and viewers time and time again is the appeal of what lies beneath Elizabeth’s projected image. It is the mystery of what she seems to be withholding from us, and the prospect of glimpsing the real person behind the title. With this in mind, it is worth considering how different artists have attempted to depict this complexity, and how, aside from overt political motivation, the Queen can be considered an enduring subject in and of herself.
Her face is indisputably part of the fabric of British life, and endless iterations of Elizabeth by artists throughout her reign have made it perhaps the most recognisable too. So, with her majesty celebrating 70 years on the throne, it is only fitting that we take a look at how artists in the MyArtBroker collection have stepped up to the mantle and captured her likeness over the last century.
Andy Warhol famously claimed that he one day wished to be “as famous as the Queen of England,” and, fascinated by the allure of power and celebrity, it is easy to see why. Part of his 1985 Reigning Queens series, the artist created Queen Elizabeth II based on a royal portrait from 1977, one that was originally commissioned to celebrate her silver jubilee.
Acquired by the Royal Collection in 2012, this particular edition plays into the colour scheme of the Union Jack flag — linking ruler to her nation. However, four other iterations see her depicted in hot pink and purple, in keeping with their Pop Art heritage. What is important here is that Warhol has essentially given Queen Elizabeth the Marilyn Monroe treatment, capturing her in a moment of suspended youth using industrial printing methods, and reducing her to a consumable image.
He leans into the Queen as a celebrity, rather than as a divinely appointed monarch, choosing to emphasise the importance of her image and its reproducibility rather than the person beneath it. And remember, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Particularly for an American artist like Warhol, the Queen really is no more than her outward persona. As a figurehead, she is someone in the public eye, another celebrity in a sea of film stars, musicians and politicians, who deserves artistic treatment that reflects this.
Now referred to as the ‘secret’ portrait, Damien Hirst’s Beautiful Portrait from 2014 creates a striking likeness of her majesty using the artist’s signature spin technique. A method employed in his early series, In A Spin, The Action Of The World Upon Things, Hirst has depicted a smiling Queen Elizabeth against a backdrop of radial pink and blue. Slightly reminiscent of a neon pound coin, there is a sense of intimacy suggested here by the work’s small size.
What is interesting is that Hirst did not record or release this portrait publicly, rather handed it to the Government Art Collection (GAC) directly from his studio. The GAC scheme sought to acquire art on behalf of the nation, however with a limited budget, a Damien Hirst original seemed out of the question.
The story goes that Hirst then donated the portrait out of support for the scheme, but one cannot help but wonder whether he also kept the work secret for the benefit of his own legacy — a heartfelt portrait of Queen Liz doesn’t quite fit in with his art-world bad boy image, does it? There is something rather humorous about YBA enfant-terrible taking a break from dissecting sharks and sheep to create a gift for her majesty. Perhaps once again this is a testament to the artistic lure of her image; so great was the pull that even Damien Hirst just couldn't resist?
Created in 2004, the National Gallery described Chris Levine’s most famous portrait work, Lightness of Being, as “the most evocative image of a royal by any artist,” and in many ways, they are completely right. Far from the imposing glare of historical royal portraits past, or indeed from the staged serenity of Elizabeth’s own official photograph sittings, Lightness of Being catches the Queen at her most innocently human.
Levine was originally commissioned to create a 3-dimensional holographic portrait of Elizabeth, titled Equanimity, which required her to sit for 8-second sittings while a moving camera caught 200 shots of her head and shoulders each time. Between sittings, Levine encouraged her to rest, and it was one of these moments, where the Queen closed her eyes to collect herself, which birthed the happy accident we see here.
It is the sense of intimacy, of Elizabeth being caught off guard for once that has ensured Levine’s portrait remains a favourite amongst the nation. It only confirms our voyeuristic desire to see beyond an official image to the person beneath, our intrigue when it comes to capturing the Queen.
In sharp contrast to this, we have Banksy. Never one to shy away from criticising the Royal Family, the bristol-born street artist’s anti-establishment ideals have most definitely seeped into his portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. Created in 2003, Monkey Queen sees Elizabeth’s own face swapped out for that of a chimpanzee, intended to, (as Picture’s On Walls described) “Celebrate the fact that the highest position in British society is not a reward for talent or hard work, but is simply handed out as an accident of birth.”
The work was unsurprisingly controversial, sparking nationwide debate regarding its public display during the Queen’s golden jubilee. Unavoidably political in its criticism of both those in charge of the country, as well as of the ‘primitive’ notion of monarchy itself, Monkey Queen is not your typical royal portrait.
Nonetheless, it does speak to the iconic status of Elizabeth’s image, and its usefulness as an artistic vehicle. Royal portraits have always been used for political gain and as bolsters of the monarchy’s strength - regardless of the individual they actually depict - so it seems only fair that artists such as Banksy are able to use the Queen’s image to their own political ends, even if those ends critique the very structure her likeness represents.
On the subject of controversial royal portraits, Lucian Freud’s 2001 commission has been dubbed everything from “the finest royal portrait in 150 years” to a work that deserves to have Freud “thrown in the tower” for its portrayal of Elizabeth with a ‘rugby player’s neck’ and ‘the face of a corgi.’ A tad harsh perhaps.
In fact, this small oil-on-canvas work, with its quintessentially Freudian expressive brushstrokes, is one of Elizabeth’s favourites. She personally thanked the artist, stating “I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.”
Despite its small size, the artist compared taking on the royal portrait to a polar expedition, describing the struggle of wanting to catch the Queen’s inner likeness rather than simply her exterior image. Testament once again to the weight that the iconography of the monarch bears, Freud’s Queen Elizabeth II betrays a tenderness from the artist as well as his attempts to capture the humanity of her majesty rather than a sugar-coated or superficial glimpse.
A perfect summary of the various attitudes we bear towards the monarchy and the Queen herself, Grayson Perry’s Comfort Blanket suggests that Queen Elizabeth’s image is as much a part of Britain as Marks & Spencer or class division: whether we love her or indeed love to hate her.
Shown here grinning as she presides over the rest of the tapestry, Perry describes her as an ‘Aunt’ who ‘might’ve stitched the whole thing in front of her hissing gas fire…Corrie playing on the telly.” While this may not be an entirely accurate portrayal of her majesty’s personal life, Perry makes no secret of the fact that he wishes to depict her as something more than a detached figurehead, rather as a real person with likes and dislikes, who is an important part of British culture. Once again, there is a suggestion of rejecting the two-dimensional, detached royal portrait, in favour of a depiction that speculates on what lies beneath the projected image.