The Queen’s image: the reverential and the real
A new publication shows how depictions of Elizabeth II have changed over the past 60 years - from the remoteness and splendour of her early reign to later pictures portraying her as “one of us”. With Freud and Warhol she has even became contemporary art
By Roy Strong. Features, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 04 June 2012
Queen Elizabeth II must be the single most visually recorded human being in history. Literally millions of images of her exist as she has lived through a century which has witnessed a media explosion. That was already under way in the year that she was born, in 1926, for the inherited forms of disseminating the royal likeness had already extended beyond coins, banknotes, seals, medals, sculpture and paintings to embrace photography and its use in newspapers and magazines. During her lifetime, film and television were to play crucial roles in sustaining and spreading the monarchical image as well as photography, which began controllable but became ever more intrusive in the age of the paparazzi. The medium of television also expanded: colour, once rare, became commonplace. As I write, the internet throws up almost 58 million images of The Queen in every guise.
These facts establish that during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, any attempt to control the royal image was to become increasingly difficult. But not quite impossible, for the public presence of the monarch in the rituals of state and in officially sanctioned images—ranging from her profile on the obverse of the coinage to official portraits commissioned by the Palace to mark particular moments in the reign—projects a very definite storyline, which charts what was in fact an iconographical paradox, one which remains unresolved. On the one hand, the public, in an egalitarian age during which deference has gone, increasingly wishes members of the Royal Family to be seen to be “one of us”. On the other, there lingers a strong desire for a being set apart, a bejewelled icon embodying the nation and its heroic past, along with values and virtues long since abandoned by most of the population. That contradiction lies at the heart of the iconography of Elizabeth II, which, looked at dispassionately, is often so disjunctive that at times we could be looking at representations of two different people.
The Queen began her life as the elder daughter of a younger son and it was not until the year of George VI’s coronation in 1937 that any serious thought was given to the presentation of the new heiress to the throne. Her earliest appearances before the camera are in the main by Marcus Adams (1875-1959), a fashionable photographer of royal children, soft-focus and cloyingly sweet. In 1936, a photographer calling herself Lisa Sheridan (died 1966) was asked almost by chance to photograph the
family informally. Her pictures, more
like snaps, were important not for their style but for their innovative
content, visual equivalents of the revelations of the young princesses’
governess, Marion Crawford, on their childhood life. After 1937, such pictures
were for official release and designed to present the new monarch, his consort
and his children as a happy family doing what any middle-class family would
have done at the time. They are carefully contrived presentations of the two
young princesses and their parents engaged in family life and especially any
activity that reflected the war effort. York