The Queen: regal, charming and the esteemed mother of our nation. An icon, for sure, in our history and newsprint, but it is the appearance of Her Royal Highness that has always attracted artists over the course of her reign to try and discover the essence of our monarch behind the steely gaze and enigmatic smile. Her face is seen every day in the frozen form of duty and class in our postage stamps, the most recent release of which celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday, and included Prince George in the collection for the first time.
The commissioned art for the more formal presentation of the Queen often holds similar themes of dignity and majesty, but even in this safe presentation there can still be controversy. For example, last year the Queen’s likeness was created in oils by cleaner Alastair Barford, who had never been paid for a commission before until the ‘Illustrated London News’ employed him to capture Her Majesty for their limited edition collection entitled ‘The Royal Reign.’
However, in years gone by and surely to come, artists have not wished to restrain their creativity, no matter how sacred the presentation of our ruler is perceived to be. Andy Warhol famously portrayed the Queen in exactly the same way as celebrity icons Marilyn Monroe, Prince and Elizabeth Taylor, with his clashing silkscreen prints exploring contrast to the maximum in his 1985 ‘Reigning Queens’ collection. Warhol was obviously fascinated by what made up the greatness of those in the public eye, branching away from popular culture to more political figures, such as Her Majesty The Queen and the very different serene dignity of Chairman Mao. The Queen’s politely calm image has also been used in the height of irony by artist Jamie Reid, who designed the artwork for the Sex Pistol’s 'God Save the Queen,' 1977 song, distorting her gentle demeanour by blacking out her eyes and mouth into one of anarchy and punk anti-establishmentarianism.
The enthrallment that draws artists to the grace of the Queen can be attributed to a number of qualities, the most prominent of which is the calmly hard exterior, which however softened in youth as the classic ‘English Rose’, is always discernible as she ages. It is this almost omniscient air, combined with the upbringing and lifestyle of an era of aristocracy that has now passed us by that allows Her Majesty to radiate pure, self-assured power, no matter the criticisms of weakness and pointlessness from Republicans who would like to remove this layer of hierarchy from the British system. And with those knowing eyes and that broad smile that echoes the disguised mirth of the Mona Lisa, it is easy to see how many are unsettled by this great leader and how in turn this has attracted artists for nearly a century to experiment with her presentation, each hoping to lay bare the enigma of royalty for all to see.
Original Illustration by Lucy Roberts