Visual art review: The Queen - Art and Image

Throughout the six decades of her reign, Queen Elizabeth IIhas presented a changing face to the world and there are occasional welcome glimpses here of the woman inside

The Queen: Art and Image

Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh ****

WE JINGLE it in our pockets. We stick it on our letters. The Queen's image is ubiquitous. It is not just current, it is currency. The catalogue of the exhibition, The Queen: Art and Image, proposes "It is likely that since her birth in 1926, Elizabeth has been portrayed more frequently than any other sitter in history." It would be hard to prove, but nevertheless is probably true. Her long reign spans the shift from the age of deference to that of universal first names; from a time when the supply of images was so limited that Picture Post was distinctive because it was illustrated, to the age of the paparazzi and all the visual flood of modern media.

Nevertheless, history is still the frame for all these innumerable images. However vestigially, the royal portrait still carries an aura from the archaic origins of monarchy. As we live in an age when it should have so little relevance, its continued potency must reflect something atavistic in us.

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This exhibition traces how the Queen's image has been brought closer to us over the years, how she has learnt to smile and seem more ordinary, but nevertheless remains apart. She is not simply a celebrity, object of our prurient curiosity. Andy Warhol tried to turn her into a 20th-century icon as he did Elizabeth Taylor and Mao Tse Tung, but it doesn't work. She's an icon already. There's nothing to manipulate.

Most of the other artists trying to give her image a contemporary slant here fall just as flat. Lucien Freud produces a grumpy caricature. Gilbert and George look laboured. With the exception of Pietro Annigoni, it is the photography that is most telling. It was a photograph by Dorothy Wilding, for instance, that was to provide the portrait of the Queen used on the first issue of stamps for her reign. It was replaced in 1961, but that second portrait is very similar and is still in use 50 years later, as though she is forever young.

Stamps followed coins. The image of the living ruler appeared on the latter early in the history of money and indeed of portraiture. The mystique of the sovereign magically endorses the coin. The same mystique made kings and queens and, of course princesses, the inhabitants of fairy tales; the panoply of the Coronation in 1953 was clearly intended to endorse that fantasy.

The Queen was photographed by Cecil Beaton in full coronation rig, wearing her crown and carrying the orb and sceptre. Still little more than a girl, it all seems too much for her. The gap between person and monarch is palpable. The picture was taken in Buckingham Palace, but a soft-focus view of Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey has replaced the background and the image is strangely artificial. Suitably so, perhaps.

The age of deference effectively ended with the Labour landslide of 1945, but the medieval rigmarole of the Coronation was clearly intended to put it all firmly back in place with the Queen at the top of the social stack. The most prominent jewel in the crown is a massive ruby that belonged to the Black Prince. The Queen is wearing earrings that belonged to Elizabeth I. It was all backward looking. Overlooking the more immediate precedent of Queen Victoria, the 1950s was to be the dawn of a new Elizabethan age. It was pure fantasy.

The first picture here is very different and is the most telling. It is a press photograph taken at London Airport in 1951. The new Queen has just returned from Kenya, summoned by her father's death and her consequent accession to the throne. Dressed in black and half hidden by her husband, she is just one figure in a group, but looking away from it she seems very much alone, lost almost.

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Pietro Annigoni's famous portrait, painted the following year, captures that loneliness. Silhouetted against a bleak and wintry landscape, she looks down and out of the picture. The pose and direction of her gaze were apparently prompted by her remark to the painter, "When I was a little child it always delighted me to look out of the window and see the people and traffic going by." Unconsciously she sees herself like Rapunzel, or the Lady of Shalott. As though locked in a tower, she could watch the world, but not be part of it.

Unfortunately this key picture, although in the catalogue, is not being shown in Edinburgh. Annigoni painted her again and this second portrait is here, but it is less successful. Standing against a dark sky and low horizon, she looks like an earnest Victorian illustration of Duty.

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Much of the rest of the exhibition traces how she has struck a bargain whereby she is allowed some normality and, up to a point, we are allowed to witness it, but in which, nevertheless, she is still apart from us. Part of the deal has been that as deference has gone out like the tide, an absurd little pool of bowing and scraping remains around the Queen herself.

Part of the complexity of her image is that unlike the previous Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, alongside her sovereign's role, she has also been a wife and mother, a role whose universal humanity transcends the lonely one of monarch. Queen Victoria had nine children, but her family life was very private. Opening up this ordinary side of Elizabeth's life was the key to a process of normalisation, of stepping down from that lonely high place that Annigoni had portrayed.

Cecil Beaton photographed her holding Prince Andrew as a baby, but, as she is posed like a Raphael Madonna, the result is scarcely less formal than the Annigoni portrait. The really informal images begin with Anthony Armstrong Jones (Lord Snowdon) and Lord Lichfield who were part of, or close to the Royal Family anyway and used their access to take more intimate pictures.

An early attempt by Snowdon does look embarrassingly stagey, however. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are looking down from a bridge at Charles and Anne sitting on a rock below, an improbable place to share a picture book. Nevertheless, if little children can easily project an image of domestic harmony, they also grow up. Lichfield's picture of the whole family firm, all 21 of them, gathered at Windsor Castle with the Queen in a golden chair at the centre, points to a side of the domestic story that was later to cause much grief: the Queen may earn the respect for which we grant her distance, but her family have proved to be, with one or two exceptions, no better than any other spoilt offspring of wealth and privilege.

But a picture by Lichfield of the Queen on Britannia, alone, laughing and completely relaxed, strikes a different note again. There are later pictures too where she seems to smile with real pleasure and warmth. Clearly she has spirit, but it must be a weary business.

That is certainly what Chris Levine's picture of her shows. She is wearing a diamond tiara, but has her eyes closed as she takes a break, exhausted by the interminable series of photographs needed to make a hologram portrait hanging nearby. It is touching to see there really is a person behind the image, but don't be fooled.

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The latest portrait, unveiled for the exhibition, is a huge photograph by Thomas Struth. Cleverly lit, the Queen and Duke are sitting side by side against the discreetly blurred, but nevertheless plainly visible gilded grandeur of Buckingham Palace. They seem a cosy enough old couple, but look at their eyes, hers especially. There you clearly see the steel that has kept the show on the road.

• Until 18 September