Saturday, 19 November 2011

New books: The iconography of Elizabeth II

The diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain is approaching and to mark the occasion the National Portrait Gallery is, as previously mentioned, holding a travelling exhibition titled “The Queen: Art & Image”. Having already been shown in Edinburgh, it is now in Belfast and will go to Cardiff before ending up in London from 17 May to 21 October.
David Moorhouse, the NPG’s curator of twentieth century portraits, has put together the catalogue of the same name, which begins with an essay of historical reflections on the reign of Elizabeth II by the renowned historian Sir David Cannadine. The story of Britain and the British monarchy in the days of Elizabeth II is in many ways the story of recessional, Professor Cannadine argues.
It is also a story of great change, and he points out that Britain and its “imperial-ornamental” monarchy as they were at the outset of Elizabeth II’s reign might have been fairly easily recognisable to the old Queen Victoria. The “most pronounced themes” of Elizabeth II’s sixty years are “the de-Victorianisation and the downsizing of Britain and its empire, and also of the British monarchy”.
Cannadine also touches upon how the image of Queen Elizabeth, “probably the most visually depicted and represented individual ever to have existed across the entire span of human history”, has evolved and how the way the constitutional monarchy has developed makes it “in many ways a feminised monarchy”, which again “makes it easier for a regnant queen to be sympathetically portrayed than a mere dignified king”.
But the image and perception of the Queen is mostly dealt with by Paul Moorhouse in the book’s second essay. Moorhouse argues that the sixty years of Elizabeth II’s reign has seen “a revolution in the way the Queen is represented and perceived”. He divides these sixty years into three eras:
The period from 1952 to the mid-1960s “reflects a concern with the young Queen’s appearance”; the era from the late 1960s to the early 1980s “demonstrates a new concern with reinventing the sovereign’s public image”; while era consisting of the last thirty years “manifests and ongoing engagement with the questions of what the Queen represents”.
The first era saw a certain interest in the new monarch’s youth, beauty and glamour, but as public interest faded and the early “sense of glamour” was “replaced by something more dependable” one had to find new ways. That way was not to project “an image of special status”, but to make the Queen seem more down-to-earth. Moorhouse pins this down to 1968-1969, when “[s]tiff formality was replaced with a renewed emphasis on the Queen’s qualities as a human being”. This led to the groundbreaking 1969 television documentary on the royal family, which has subsequently been criticised for making the royals appear too ordinary and breaking down the barriers between public and private life.
One of the most interesting aspects of the catalogue is that it does not focus on painted portraits alone, but on a diverse range of media. Another new book on Queen Elizabeth states that she has sat for more than 140 portraits, but obviously press photographs have been more influential in shaping the public conception of Elizabeth II than have painted portraits. And then there are other media, such as formal photographs, video/television and the portraits which she has not sat for. The only art form missing from the catalogue is sculpture, with no explanation given for this.
With such a wide range of images to choose from the curator has probably had to make some tough choices. But the final selection is interesting and represents a cross-section of images of Elizabeth II through sixty years. Viewing them together furthermore makes apparent the connections across art form and time, for instance how Pietro Annigoni’s painting from 1954-1955 is obviously related to a formal Cecil Beaton photograph from 1968 and how Annigoni’s portrait and a second one done in 1969 “meet” in Annie Leibovitz’s 2007 photo.
Having read the catalogue with interest I look forward to seeing the exhibition.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome, but should be signed - preferably by a name, but an initial or a nick will also be accepted. Advertisements are not allowed. COMMENTS WHICH DO NOT COMPLY WITH THESE RULES WILL NOT BE PUBLISHED.