Looking beyond the crown: Britain’s most insightful royal portraits (1800-2022)

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In search of the most honest monarchic portraits from British history, we finally enter the period that may eventually come to be known as the ‘Great Age’ of the portrait. Partly thanks to the Enlightenment, the 18th century saw the commissioning of portraits expanded to incorporate the meritocratic class, allowing for the immortalisation of an entire stratum of English society. Against this tide of image production, the monarch could no longer depend on singular depictions to project their royal status. Instead, the power of the crown was borne out by a newfound awareness of its wearer’s multiplicity.

During the course of her 63-year reign, Queen Victoria became by far the most painted and photographed monarch of her time, her likeness captured in a multitude of guises from the benevolent and maternal, to the puritanical and imperialistic. With the rapid expansion of the portrait raging in the background, I have chosen two works that appear remarkably quiet and residual when compared to the reigns they represent. Yet despite this initial subtlety, both portraits show a face of the monarch that was considered socially contentious or problematic upon their completion, a twist that distinguishes the sovereign from the sitter.

The power of the crown was borne out by a newfound awareness of its wearer’s multiplicity

‘Queen Victoria’ (1843) (The Secret Picture) by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Following the death of her uncle, William, in 1837, Victoria was finally crowned. As a youthful symbol of the end of old social mores and excesses she was widely embraced by the public, promising the renewal they so vehemently desired. Captured by the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the same artist who would go on to produce perhaps Victoria’s most famous family portrait in 1846, the work’s provenance places it right at the heart of an art machine that served the purposes of every royal family in Europe. This particular piece was made within a year of Winterhalter’s arrival in England and was likely taken as an early proof of his abilities, though it features none of the extravagant lacework that dominates his later compositions. 

Given as a gift for Prince Albert’s 24th birthday, it is a dramatically personal image, one deemed too erotic for public display. Poised with a casual elegance, her hair untied upon bare shoulders, it captures an easy intimacy that would have been scandalous for any woman of the period to assume, let alone a new Queen. It would be easy to argue that the picture is far too romanticised to be authentic, and yet, by elevating Victoria’s pleasing ‘ladylike’ features to an ecstasy of beauty that embraces her distinctly rounded features, it leaves us with an optimistic exultation of her reality. Albert certainly loved it and had it displayed in his private writing room at Windsor, where it remained his favourite piece for forty years. Showing us a Victoria freed of the jowly soberness that plagues her reputation today, the final revelation of this picture after 130 years behind closed doors is a revitalising discovery. 

It captures an easy intimacy that would have been scandalous for any woman of the period to assume, let alone a new Queen

‘Queen Elizabeth II’ (2001) by Lucian Freud

Shifting between underworld and aristocracy, the duality and relative enigma of the portraitist Lucian Freud has made him one of the most intriguing and widely-discussed painters of the modern age. Among the few artists in history permitted to paint a monarch outside the terms of classical realism, Freud’s interest in capturing the ‘true’ body has left us with an image that caused outrage upon its completion. Whilst the queen carefully commented that she simply enjoyed watching the artist mix his colours, many in the press were quick to call this a ‘portrait too far’, and declare it something of a travesty. 

Usually a slow and laborious artist, Freud was forced to respond to the demands of a royal commission by reverting to a dialogue with already well-known visuals of the Queen. In particular, the minute scale of the work, a departure for Freud at this stage in his career, evokes the postage stamp image we know so well. Breaking its rigid profile, Freud turns that iconic silhouette into a sculpturesque mass, a complex, almost psychically symmetrical structure, built like a plinth to bear its weighty crown. By the time he came to paint the crown itself, Freud had already used up his limited number of sittings and was obliged to resort to a model. The canvas also turned out to be too small and had to be extended by 3.5 cm along its top edge. Just like in reality, the majestic diamond diadem seems to linger even after its wearer has left and becomes a sitter in its own right, dominating Freud’s little picture and transforming it into the most compact double portrait he would ever produce.

Dominating Freud’s little picture and transforming it into the most compact double-portrait he would ever produce

Looking back over this selection, it is clear that none of these portraits offer a perfect likeness of their subjects. Instead, they all seem to reflect moments when the monarch allowed their commissions to exist beyond the function of displaying the power and authority of their genealogical inheritance. Henry IV does this somewhat unwittingly, unable to ever fully resolve the contradictions of his coronation, but the others all freely embrace something of their imperfection. Whether in a moment of despair or overwhelming expectation, they have allowed the production of artworks that suggest that the true value of monarchy is somehow interdependent with its fragility. Through artworks that show how beauty flourishes when we accept its unreliability, they help us acknowledge what a remarkable relic of history the British Monarchy truly is. As mementos of determined survival and endurance against the odds, they reveal something far more poignant than any display of pomp and power ever can.

This is the final part of a three article series

Illustration:
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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