Queen Elizabeth II, the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee, has become the most famous woman on the planet, spawning a slew of images of her in every medium imaginable. Yet, though recognized around the globe, she remains largely an enigma, familiar but unknown, a symbol rather than an individual.
Among the plethora of performances, here are six of the best. They communicate as much about the changing status of the monarchy and individual artistic goals as they do about what goes on behind the facade of a stubbornly impregnable monarch.
The Fairy Tale Monarch at Full Throttle by Cecil Beaton, 1953
Adorned with the full regalia of the Imperial State Crown, Orb and Scepter and dressed in an ermine cape and golden coronation robe designed by fashion designer Norman Hartnell, the Queen is portrayed as a monarch full-throttle fairytale drama with Beaton further reinforcing a theatrical sense of history with a painted backdrop of Westminster Abbey’s Gothic Lady Chapel. This tailoring of glitz and heritage glamor was deliberately meant to pep up gloomy post-war Britain, but at the same time the young queen looks almost subsumed in all her formal wear.
The baroque braggart by Pietro Annigoni, 1955
Commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and still housed in Fishmongers’ Hall beside London Bridge, this is an unabashedly romantic portrait steeped in Renaissance style and techniques, with more than a pinch of baroque swagger.
Wrapped in the robes of the Order of the Garter, Elizabeth comes across as aloof and regal, but she’s also a brooding heroine straight out of Daphne du Maurier’s novels that were especially popular at that time. Gazing into the distance, the dashing monarch is set in a stylized landscape that owes more to Quattrocento Tuscany than 1950s Britain. High on drama, low on psychology, Annigoni’s three-quarter image d A Queen Firmly Leading the Nation was a big hit with British audiences, drawing crowds of ten when shown at the Royal Academy, London, in 1955.
The punk provocation of Jamie Reid, 1977
Artwork by Jamie Reid for the Sex Pistols single God Save the Queen is arguably the most iconic punk image of all time. The fact that it was designed in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, makes it all the more provocative. Reid’s violent subversion of a classic black and white photo of the Queen (taken by royal photographer Peter Grugeon) – ripping out the eyes and mouth and replacing the single title and band name with cut out letters in newspaper headlines in the ransom-demand fashion – provides the perfect visual expression of the Pistols’ rumble lyrics: “God Save the Queen/she ain’t no human being/There is no future/in England’s dreaming”.
Here the monarch has been reduced to a breached cipher, fluttering above the Union flag and, by implication, blind to the mess the country finds itself in. His features were ripped out the same way the punk movement wanted to demolish society. — including the monarchy.
Expressive close-up of Lucian Freud, 2001
Freud’s 2001 portrait of the Queen is one of his smallest paintings, measuring about nine and a half inches by six inches, but it packs a mighty punch with the entire composition filled in by the Queen’s face and complemented by the shimmering diamond tiara from 1820 that Freud specifically requested that she wear. The portrait was not commissioned. Freud asked to paint the Queen, she accepted, and he later donated the work to the Royal Collection Trust.
Contrary to his usual practice of summoning babysitters to his studio in Holland Park, Freud visited St James’s Palace and the Queen sat for him for a period of six months, between May and December 2001. opinion remains divided on the frank, unflattering but expressive likeness of Freud. of the aging monarch. Some have seen her portrait as a symbolic surrogate for the artist himself and there are unmistakable similarities between some of the facial features in Freud’s likeness to the Queen and those in his own late self-portraits.
The Emanation of Elizabethan Light by Chris Levine, 2004
by Chris Levine lightness of being (lenticular print, 2004), a striking portrait of the Queen in full ceremonial dress, her eyes closed and apparently emitting white light, appeared by chance during a sitting at Buckingham Palace for a portrait commissioned in 2004 by the Jersey Heritage Trust. The official portrait, showing the Queen with her eyes open and wearing the same tiara as in Freud’s portrait, was taken by Levine using a high-resolution lenticular digital camera, which takes around 200 shots while moving on a 360 degree track around the model.
Because the camera had to be reset after each circuit, Levine suggested that the queen relax while they made the adjustments and it was only later that he realized he had captured her by inadvertently at rest. Since then, Levine has reused this fortuitous image in different forms, including a version with 1,100 white diamonds to mark the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.
Hew Locke plastic assembly, 2005
Hew Locke produced numerous works depicting Queen Elizabeth II, all of which express her ambivalent relationship with the British monarchy and the nation’s colonial heritage. It dates back to the artist’s childhood spent first in Scotland and then in the former British colony of Guyana, followed by an adult life spent in Brixton, south London.
Locke’s mixed media assembled the sculpture of his Windsor House is made from an overload of cheap plastic toys and trinkets – disposable products of the global economy – that simultaneously create, adorn and undermine the image of the monarch.
The title refers to the Koh-i-Noor (“Mountain of Light”) diamond, one of the largest diamonds in the world, which was ceded to Queen Victoria the year after the British annexation of Punjab in 1849. Since 1937, the giant jewel was set in the Queen Mother’s crown and housed with the rest of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.