The Queen Art and Image

The neo-Elizabethan age captured in portraits, scribbled in light and picked apart like a jigsaw

Whether you hold her as some Arthurian inviolate, at one with the land she rules, or just somebody who’s head you lick the back of every time you need to post a letter, there is no denying that the image of the Queen is literal cultural currency. Her face may be the most popularly reproduced image in history and can be said, once again quite literally, to have made a mint.

But in many ways this exhibition at the Ulster Museum isn’t about an elderly woman named Elizabeth who has sat on the British throne for nearly 60 years. It’s the story of our society’s changing attitudes towards its most iconic power-figure and about the Palace’s attempts to second-guess its subjects.

The exhibition is arranged in chronological order, giving it a neat linear feel. You can see colour and creativity open up in front of you as you walk further into the space.

In the 1950s and 60s, when the palace had a firm grip on the Queen’s public image, media had to apply for sanctioned pictures directly from them. Cecil Beaton shows us the Queen in full orb, sceptre and ermine-trim bling, crisp, formal and elegant.

The candid shots are necessarily less successful, betraying palace complicity, the Queen looking bewildered on the steps of the London Palladium or stagey and hesitant at the microphone, poised to broadcast to the nation.

The initial relaxing of this monarchist certainty came with Richard Cawston’s 1969 television documentary of (represented here by a still of the Royal family at table). This showed the Queen, for the first time, at home and off-message, behaving informally in a family situation.

There are only seven years between this breaking from the Queen’s public image and Jamie Reid’s 'God Save the Queen' collage (also featured), with its swastika eyes and nose-pin. In that short space of time the Queen had clearly become an irresistible lure to art world iconoclasts.

In fact it is surprising how badly the best known artists here seem to engage with her. Andy Warhol can add nothing to her iconic status; her image out-strips his manipulation (see below). She’s far too famous for her meaning to be tinkered with or subverted by his usual means. She’s on coins, Andy!

Andy Warhol portrait

Lucien Freud’s portrait, the only one here on loan from the Queen’s private collection, depicts her as Mrs Brady, an old lady, a stubbly granny, chewing a wasp. And Annie Leibovitz’s 2007 portrait seems comically romantic, a gothic pastoral.

Here the Queen, in a Bela Lugosi cape, is set against a brooding and bruising Constable landscape. It’s a scene from a Gainsborough melodrama. One half expects James Mason to stride into view, brandishing a horse- whip.

Norman Parkinson’s 1980 photograph, taken for the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday, is an unusual and disarming triple portrait of the Queen, her mother and her sister, Princess Margaret. It’s formal but relaxed, something illustrated by the Royals all appearing to be wearing Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops complemented by their pearl accessories.

The three most arresting pieces for me are, rather marvellously, amongst the newer ones. Justin Mortimer’s 1998 'Portrait of H.M. The Queen' (see main picture above) presents the Queen’s body as a hard-edged, viridian jigsaw piece on an acid yellow background.

Her head hovers gently above her body, happily and serenely, as if Madame Guillotine had freed her of her earthly responsibilities. Her pale arms, anchored to her body below, look like nothing so much as a Nike 'swoosh'.

Chris Levine is represented by two images, both 3D holographic prints. He took over 10,000 images of the Queen in order to create these extraordinary mirror-silver portraits. Ghostly and evocative, 'The Lightness of Being' depicts her with closed eyes and pearlescent lips tight shut. It is a canny subversion of an over-familiar face, the Queen as you haven’t seen her before. She is all too human but barely there, sketched in outline, scribbled in light.

Thomas Struth’s photograph of the Queen and Prince Philip, seated in the Green Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, is the only piece here specifically commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, who’s Paul Moorhouse curated this touring exhibition. Struth had set his camera up for two days before the royal couple arrived for a 20 minute shoot.

The image seems to have caught them just at the end of the engagement. Philip, with his raptor’s head, stares directly into the camera while the Queen seems poised for flight, her jaw set, her hand resting on the arm of the chaise-lounge, ready to push up and out of the frame. There is steel in her gaze and a determination, which may yet see her rule longer than her great-great grandmother.

Indeed, if this exhibition shows us anything it is that we have been quietly living in an Elizabethan age for the past 60 years.

The Queen: Art and Image is at the Ulster Museum from October 14 – January 15.