The Queen Strikes a Pose at the Ulster Museum
Paul Moorhouse from the National Portrait Gallery in London on a regal exhibition
Paul Moorhouse is the 20th century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and curator of The Queen: Art and Image. This touring exhibition is now open in the Ulster Museum, and features formal portraits, photographs, media images and a range of contemporary art, all focussing on the Queen.
How did the idea for The Queen: Art and Image come about?
It came about because we wanted to mark the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s succession, coming up next year. I think there was some expectation that I was going to do a traditional show, but I didn’t want to do a formal exhibition. Instead, I wanted something a bit more critical, with an argument and a particular perspective.
I decided to do something about how the Queen is being represented. I want to look at the way the image we have of the Queen has been created and how it has evolved during the course of her reign. I felt from the outset, when looking at images of the Queen, that it was never going to be possible or be honest to present the Queen in terms of formal portraits.
The image we have of the Queen has come about because of the way she has been represented, not only by formal portraitists and studio photographers, but by the mass media and by contemporary artists, so these are all included.
Would it be fair to say that the exhibition, as well as representing a changing monarch, also reflects a change in attitude towards her from the pubiic?
Absolutely. In fact, that is really the second theme of the show. It shows the way in which the Queen is represented has evolved – all these images I am claiming are pockets of information about the way our society has changed, and the way artistic values have changed as well.
The overarching theme is a change from formality to familiarity. It starts with the formal representation in the 1950s, with traditional regal images, right up to modern day. You can see the images changing and ending up with something much more down to earth, representing somebody trying to be an ordinary person as well as a special person.
There is no defining style in the portraits. Each artist seems to approach this subject in their own unique fashion?
That’s definitely what you see evolving in the show. Each decade has its own style, but the most notable difference is the change [that occured between] the 1950s, very formal and traditional, to the 60s, which became a decade where people were intolerant of hierarchy and privilege.
I would imagine the 1960s were the biggest turning point to date?
Absolutely right. In fact, I present a view, which is very much a personal view for better or worse, that the tipping point was October 21, 1966. This was the date of the Aberfan mining disaster in Wales in which 144 people were killed, 116 of which were children. The Queen was criticised because she didn’t go and visit the town in the wake of the disaster.
I believe it looked as though she wasn’t in touch with ordinary people, and so all the images that preceded that date, with crowns and all the trappings of royalty, looked really out of date. In danger of looking out of touch after this tragedy, the Queen had to quickly find a new way of relating to people.
She had to change her image and went in search of something more ordinary and down to earth, as a way of connecting to people. Out of that you get the royal family film, which was broadcast on television, showing the process of the Queen shedding that regal image.
The exhibition features a variety of media, including the first holographic image of the Queen. I noticed that she has her eyes closed in this representation...
It was a complete accident! In creating the hologram the artist, Chris Levine, was using really long exposures, with his camera moving on a track. It is a long, exhausting process, and at some point he asked the Queen if she wanted to relax for a bit. She rested, taking some time out and closing her eyes.
Chris saw his moment, took the photograph, and that’s where it came from. It wasn’t expected or predetermined, but he saw it and he got it. That became the defining image. He felt that he had found something that nobody had seen before, which said something completely different.
If you had to pick, what would be your personal highlight of the show?
I think it would have to be the new photograph, which was commissioned for this exhibition. It is a huge photograph by Thomas Struth. I knew I wanted to put something new in the show, and I wanted it to be a photograph, as, personally, I think the greatest images of recent times have been photographs rather than paintings.
I also think that Thomas Struth is one of the world’s greatest photographers – he is brilliant at responding to relationships between people. Furthermore, I also knew that I wanted to do a portrait not only of the Queen, but of the Duke of Edinburgh as well, acknowledging a relationship which is there throughout the show, but you never get to see.
Thomas portrayed them together in Windsor Castle and it is a very sophisticated, subtle and poignant image of a relationship. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh are together, but they are also slightly apart. The Queen is slightly forward in the light, in the foreground, and the Duke is in the shadows, receding into the background.
There is a lot going on in the image, in a very understated way, and I think the photographer manages to say something important about the Queen, about who she is. She is 85 years old, a mature senior figure. She also has a role, which is to be ordinary and to be herself, and also manage to inhabit this extraordinary, historic position of being the Queen as well. It is an impossible balancing act, but somehow she continues to do it.
The Queen: Art and Image is at the Ulster Museum from October 14 – January 15