Tuesday, 23 November 2010

New books: British royal portraiture

The British Royal Collection is not only the most masterpiece-studded art collection of any reigning monarch (perhaps only Liechtenstein can rival it), but also at the top of its league when it comes to publishing a wide range of books and catalogues dealing with the collection.
Their latest publication, The Royal Portrait: Image and Impact by Jennifer Scott, assistant curator of paintings, came out in September and is a richly illustrated volume of 200 pages which deals with the traditions of royal portraiture in Britain.
This is naturally a vast topic and after a first chapter on early English royal portraits, going back to the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the author chooses to focus on some periods of time when the art of royal portraiture was of particular significance or interest – those of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II, George III, Victoria and Elizabeth II.
This means that all reigns and all epochs are not covered as thoroughly and that the book is thus somewhat incomplete. Yet this selection is understandable considering the book’s format.
It also appears to be a good choice of epochs to focus on – Sir Oliver Millar, a former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures described the era of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as “the last moderately heroic chapter in the history of royal patronage and taste in this country”, while another former Surveyor, Christopher Lloyd, has pointed out that the Royal Collection contains “nothing of true significance after 1900”. However, Queen Elizabeth II has probably sat for more portrait than any other monarch of our times (Queen Margrethe II being a possible exception) and thus justifies being included in this book.
What I miss are some more thoughts on how the arts have been used to legitimise the position of monarchs and a more comparative perspective relating to international tendencies. As it is, the book is almost entirely dedicated to English and British developments with very few glances at how this related to other contemporary courts.
The book’s somewhat disengaged, “official” character sometimes shines through, such as when the author includes a “paparazzo portrayal of Prince William and Prince Harry off-duty, sitting together at a rugby match” as an example of “methods [...] more opportunistic than artistic” but makes no mention of Kate Middleton’s presence next to Prince William, which probably had a lot to say for the media interest in this particular photo, or when the 2006 film The Queen is described as “loosely based on factual events and at times sensitively done”, yet “in fact imaginary”.
Despite these weaknesses the book, which seems to be aimed mostly at the general public, does provide a good overall survey of the history and development of British royal portraiture.

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