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New Book by the Royal Collection Explores the Impact of the Royal Portrait
Pietro Annigoni, Queen Elizabeth II, 1969.

LONDON.- Portraits have played a central role in shaping the image of Monarchy. They have helped legitimise claims to the throne, reinforced dynastic ambitions, cemented political alliances, accompanied proposals of marriage, and even offered a glimpse into the private life of the royal family.

The Royal Portrait: Image and Impact brings together iconic images of kings and queens by some of the most celebrated portrait artists, including Holbein, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Lawrence and Freud. It looks at the creation of a monarch’s identity through portraiture over the past 600 years, assessing the influence of patron, artist and audience. The story is brought up to date with images of Her Majesty The Queen, including the work of the photographers Rankin and Annie Leibovitz, as the author considers the relevance of the royal portrait in the age of paparazzo photography and global media.

Up to the early 16th century, the main function of the portrait was to communicate the status of the sitter, rather than serve as a truthful record of their appearance. The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon (c.1503–9) is a highly idealised and symbolic representation of the King and his family, including his four deceased children. Only a few years later, Henry VIII and his court artist, Hans Holbein, transformed portraiture in Britain forever. Holbein’s larger-than-life and realistic depiction of the King for the Whitehall Mural was so powerful that it left viewers in a state of fright. This was the first royal portrait to be disseminated to a mass audience through numerous versions. Elizabeth I, following the example of her father, guarded her image fiercely and even passed a law to prevent portraits being produced without her consent.

In the early 17th century, royal portraiture was heavily influenced by the belief that the monarch was divinely ordained to rule. Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait Charles I with M. de St. Antoine (1633) shows the all-powerful King riding through a triumphal arch and towering above the viewer, despite his diminutive stature. By contrast, in Charles I and Henrietta Maria Departing for the Chase (c.1630–32) by Daniel Mytens, the King and Queen appear as a fashionably dressed couple standing hand in hand, giving the viewer a rare insight into their private world.

With the 18th century came the fashion for informality in portraiture. This was the age of the ‘Conversation Piece’, a group portrait that captures sitters in what appears to be a spontaneous, natural moment. Through the work of Johan Zoffany, the greatest practitioner of the Conversation Piece, George III and Queen Charlotte were portrayed as approachable and ‘modern’. In Zoffany’s Queen Charlotte with her Two Eldest Sons (c.1765), the royal family is shown relaxed and at play. This picture of domestic normality contrasts with Thomas Lawrence’s swaggering coronation portrait of George IV (son of George III) (c.1818–21). Here the King is presented as a romantic, conquering hero and the vanquisher of Napoleon.

Queen Victoria had strong views about how she was portrayed and considered her State portrait by Sir David Wilkie to be ‘atrocious’. Among her favourite painters was the German artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter. In The Royal Family in 1846 Winterhalter depicts the Queen as a glamorous woman in an elegant ball gown, and as a model wife and mother. Queen Victoria’s image was mass produced to an unprecedented extent through engraved reproductions and the new medium of photography, of which she was a passionate advocate. The Queen commissioned several thousand photographic images of herself and her family. In 1898 a member of the Royal Household commented, ‘It is quite a weakness of hers to be photographed in every possible condition of her daily life’.

Today the image of Her Majesty The Queen is familiar to millions through the global reach of modern media. Yet portraiture continues to play an important role in communicating powerful messages about Monarchy. For example, in Missis Kwin (1996) the Papua New Guinean artist Mathias Kauage portrayed Her Majesty as a tribal chief adorned with symbols of authority from his own culture. Separated by almost half a century are two of the most striking portraits of The Queen: Pietro Annigoni’s 1954 commission for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and Lucian Freud’s portrait of 2000–1. The most recent official portrait of The Queen was produced by the photographer Annie Leibovitz to celebrate Her Majesty’s visit to the United States of America in 2007. Leibovitz’s work is wholly a product of the 21st century, but at the same time plays homage to the rich tradition of royal portraiture.

Jennifer Scott is Assistant Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection and is the co-author of Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting (2007) and Dutch Landscapes (2010).

The Royal Portrait: Image and Impact will be available from Royal Collection shops at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Royal Portrait | Jennifer Scott | Holbein | Van Dyck | Gainsborough |

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