Portraits of Power

Portraits of Power

Royal portraiture has defined and disseminated authority since time immemorial. In this exclusive essay published ahead of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, historian Andrew Graham-Dixon analyses the fascinating complexities and characteristics found in a selection of iconic portraits, commemorating British queens from the Tudors to the present day.
Royal portraiture has defined and disseminated authority since time immemorial. In this exclusive essay published ahead of the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, historian Andrew Graham-Dixon analyses the fascinating complexities and characteristics found in a selection of iconic portraits, commemorating British queens from the Tudors to the present day.

T he history of the British monarchy suggests that women have a particular aptitude for ruling the waves - and, indeed, for waiving the rules. There have been relatively few regnant queens, hardly surprising given that the laws of primogeniture are stacked in favour of men, but their collective record is outstanding. Think of Queen Elizabeth I, of Queen Victoria, of our present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II: all of them long-lived, popular with their subjects (most of the time) and enviably adept at plotting a course through the fraught political landscape of their times.

Every successful monarch needs to manage the royal image, since it is largely through their images that rulers have been able to shape public perceptions and influence the judgements of posterity. And in this too, the great queens have excelled greatly. This is partly so, perhaps, because of the intrinsic difficulty of being a woman in a traditionally male role. It could be argued that regnant queens have been so adroit and innovative in developing the symbolism of power - not just through portraits, but through costume, ceremony, seals and many other media - because they have had no alternative. The royal image has been one of their main weapons against the historic chauvinist preconception that queens must be weaker than kings, because women are the supposedly weaker sex.

'Few rulers have used the propagandistic power of art as effectively as Elizabeth I'

Few rulers have used the propagandistic power of art as effectively as Elizabeth I. Well schooled in the classics, she understood the way in which ancient myths could be used to bolster the monarchy. The imagery of her court is full of classical allusions: a labyrinth of allegories, codes and emblems, at the centre of which, awaiting discovery, is always the same one image, namely that of Elizabeth herself, whose favoured alter-ego was Astraea, the Virgin Queen. Vestiges of such symbolism still persist in unlikely places, such as the American state of Virginia, colonised by Sir Walter Raleigh and named by him in deference to his queen.

The daunting example of her father, Henry VIII, both as patron of Holbein and as a master of public pageantry, helped Elizabeth I to understand the ways in which the imagery of power might also help a monarch hold on to it. She had an instinctive grasp not only of how to present herself, but when to do so, to maximum effect. In the summer of 1588, on the eve of the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada, she had the pluck to make a personal appearance on horseback before 17,000 English troops deployed at Tilbury, on the Thames estuary. Somehow managing to remain in the saddle while dressed in a hooped construction of jewel-encrusted silks and damasks, her neck encircled by an elaborate ruff and arrayed with pearls in her hair, she must have seemed to the men gathered before her more vision than flesh-and-blood: the sun at the centre of their system, radiating a light that would doubtless ensure they repel the darkness of Spanish invasion. The speech she made that day - prototype for those made by Winston Churchill during the Second World War - has been remembered as the most famous of her reign:

"I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too..."
- Queen Elizabeth I

"Let tyrants fear... I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and the heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too..."

In The Armada Portrait, commissioned later that year to mark victory over Spain, Elizabeth I is probably shown in the same costume she had worn to address her troops - or at least, allowing for artistic licence, one very much like it. Wearing pearls in her hair, multiple pearl necklaces and with yet more pearls embroidered with gold thread into the rich fabric of her sleeves, her hands and face are all that can be seen of her body. Her left hand rests on her thigh, her right on the globe, protecting England and its nascent empire. Beside her rests the crown.

The room in which we find her would seem airless were it not for two glimpses of the outside world disclosed by open curtains. Through one window we see the English fleet, advancing implacably across calm seas and under sunny skies; through the other, Spanish ships scattered by storms and dashed against rocks. Elizabeth wears an expression of utter impassivity, shot through with steely resolve. In the universe of the painting she is the sun, the unmoved mover: a queen as powerful as any king, because she has God on her side. To emphasise her special relationship with God, the painter has been bold enough to paint her in a pose very close to that of Christ the Judge in paintings of the Last Judgement. Her left hand is down, as if to condemn the Spanish (who sink and flounder on the same, sinister side) to damnation; her right hand is raised, as if to bless England and the English for all eternity.

Part of the cleverness of The Armada Portrait lies in the way in which it plays with the existing conventions of English royal portraiture, bending them to the purposes of Elizabeth I herself. In her Tilbury speech she had insisted that despite having a woman's "feeble" body, she had the stomach of a king - "and a king of England too". The Armada Portrait makes the same point by playing up the distortions of her body engineered by the remarkable construction of her dress. As a result, she looks impossibly broad-shouldered: as broad-shouldered as her father, Henry VIII, had famously been made to seem in Holbein's celebrated Whitehall Portrait. The resemblance is surely not coincidental. This was Elizabeth's way of using art to make the point that she was truly her father's daughter.

"What might in normal circumstances have been regarded as a weakness in a monarch - the lack of an heir - has been transformed into an advantage, through the alchemy of art"

The image of Elizabeth in The Armada Portrait echoes that of Henry by Holbein in other, ingenious ways. Holbein presented Henry as the virile father of a dynasty, symbolised by his martial pose, out-thrust shoulders and large and prominent codpiece. Elizabeth might have her father's shoulders, but everything else has been changed to reflect her very different position as a monarch: female, without spouse or prospect of child. Below her waist, dead centre, where Henry had worn that extravagant codpiece, we find a single very large dangling pearl, made all the more prominent by an x-marks-the-spot ribbon of silk tying it into place. The pearl stands for purity and therefore virginity, proudly displayed.

Commission to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for the making up of writs for the execution of the 7th Earl of Northumberland, 20 July 1572
© Archives of the Duke of Northumberland, Alnwick Castle

What might in normal circumstances have been regarded as a weakness in a monarch - the lack of an heir - has been transformed into an advantage, through the alchemy of art. Flaunting her virginity was Elizabeth's way of reinforcing her subjects' impression that she might live in this world but remained essentially above it. The cult of her purity takes on another meaning besides in The Armada Portrait, encapsulated in that detail of the pearl at her groin: just as she has guarded her virginity, so too has she preserved Protestant England against violation by Catholic Spain.

Royal imagery under Elizabeth was unambiguous in declaring the absolute nature of her power. The Tudors and Stuarts upheld the doctrine of the divine right of kings (and queens), and with it belief in "the king's touch", which could in theory heal victims of plague or other diseases. So it is that in The Armada Portrait the monarch's hands are vessels of divine power, enabled to bless or to damn; and in truth the touch of her hand could be fatal.

Commission to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal for the making up of writs for the execution of the 7th Earl of Northumberland, 20 July 1572 (Detail of Privy Seal) © Archives of the Duke of Northumberland, Alnwick Castle

Compelling evidence for this is the death warrant of Thomas, 7th Earl of Northumberland, which she signed in her characteristically spidery handwriting and stamped in wax with a signet ring bearing the symbol of her "ultimate power", the Privy Seal. The document bears vivid witness to the ruthlessness with which the Virgin Queen wielded her authority, although it also contains a modicum of mercy in its final phrases: "the residue of the Executions due in that case [i.e. treason] we do remitt and discharge." In other words, Thomas was to be let off with mere beheading, without also being hanged, drawn and quartered.

The Privy Seal with which Elizabeth stamped that warrant in 1572 was of a traditional heraldic design. In 1586 she commissioned a bold alternative from her court painter, Nicholas Hilliard, which bore her own image, wreathed in Tudor roses and clothed in a dress and ruff similar to that which she would don for the Tilbury troops and The Armada Portrait two years later. She even put her stamp, so to speak, on her stamp.

Not only did Elizabeth ensure that her own image proliferated everywhere at court - even encouraging her male courtiers to wear miniatures of her close to their hearts, making each of them her Platonic suitor - but she rigorously controlled the ways in which that image was created and presented. No paintings or drawings of her could be circulated without her prior knowledge, and in the images which she did approve she was frozen at the same relatively young age.

Left: Archbishop Parker’s binding for Queen Elizabeth I, with the letters E and R and a crowned Tudor rose in the centre. Presented by Parker in 1574 to the Queen through William Cecil, Lord Burghley. © Wormsley Library. Right: Coronation Bible for Queen Elizabeth II, Oxford University Press, 1953. Binding designed by Lynton Lamb and bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Number 18 of 25 special copies. Copy number 1 was used for the Coronation. © Wormsley Library.

All this explains why she looks so much the same in so many of the great Elizabethan images of her, whether standing on a map of her own country (The Ditchley Portrait) or clutching a rainbow, symbol of God's covenant with the faithful, while wearing a dress embroidered with eyes and ears to indicate the reach of her secret service (The Rainbow Portrait). In such works she seems as changeless and immune to age as the Virgin Mary, whose divine mystery and powers of intercession were surely being claimed for herself, in the sphere of art, by England's Virgin Queen. This was perhaps her canniest strategy of all, although it rested on a paradox. Elizabeth was a ruthless enforcer of the Protestant Reformation, during whose reign thousands of religious works of art were rooted out of church and cathedral to be smashed and destroyed. Yet at the same time she appropriated the aura of magic that had long clung to those works of art, stealing it for the imagery of her formidable cult.

Queen Anne presenting the plans of Blenheim to military Merit (1708), Sir Godfrey Kneller
Reproduced with kind permission of His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, Blenheim Palace Image Library.

Later regnant queens of England (and the British Isles) took an understandably more cautious approach to the creation and dissemination of their own royal images. Monarchy survived the beheading of Charles I, the English Civil War, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, but it did so in a far more circumscribed way, its powers increasingly checked and limited by those of parliament. Mary II, who was co-monarch with her husband, William III of Orange, did not live long, but those portraits of her that do survive - by Jan van de Vaart, for example - show that she had a far less exalted sense of herself than Elizabeth I, or indeed any of her Stuart predecessors. In van der Vart's portrait she wears swathes of regal drapery, but they lack the bounce and flounce of truly exuberant Baroque royal painting (compare and contrast the drapery in Rigaud's portraits of Louis XIV of France); in fact, were it not for the ermine, the sceptre held so loosely between first and second finger, and the lurking crown, it might be thought she were a courtier rather than the Queen herself.

Similarly, in Kneller’s depiction of her sister Anne presenting the plans of Blenheim to military Merit, the Queen is portrayed not as an omnipotent ruler, but as a benevolent figurehead endowing the spoils of victory and distributing a cornucopia of riches amongst her people. As the first monarch of a sovereign Great Britain following the Acts of Union of 1707, Anne’s reign brought peace and stability to the British Isles, not through autocratic decree but by democratic consent.

Queen Victoria by Sir George Hayter (Property of a Hambleden resident)

Queen Victoria came to the throne when the powers of the monarchy had been yet more diminished by the beginnings of parliamentary democracy. She understood the nature of the challenge that faced her, doing her level best to assist in the making of royal images that would make her position secure, even in Europe's Age of Revolutions - an age when monarchy no longer seemed necessarily part of the status quo. What she needed above all was to be popular, and she developed a series of strategies to make herself so. At the very start of her reign she played on her youth, taking on for portraitist George Hayter the role of an ingénue princess seated on a throne that looks somehow too big for her. The image of fresh-faced innocence, she might almost be a character from a novel by Dickens, suddenly thrust into the spotlight. A copy of Hayter's original portrait was also commissioned by Madame Tussaud's, where thousands flocked to see it: Victoria had reached her target audience, and would never look back.

After marrying Albert and giving birth to a copious brood of children, she would cultivate a different but equally unthreatening image of queendom. The polar opposite of Elizabeth I's Virgin Queen, remote and aloof, Victoria became the quintessential figure of the loving wife and doting mother, the incarnation of Victorian family values. Edwin Landseer painted one of the most striking portraits of this thoroughly domesticated queen, greeting Albert on his return from the shoot, tellingly entitled Windsor Castle in Modern Times. The point was not merely that Victoria was a very modern queen; it was also that she knew, very well, how to project the image of being one.

"The polar opposite of Elizabeth I's Virgin Queen, remote and aloof, Victoria became the quintessential figure of the loving wife and doting mother"

Through the dark years of her widowhood and then a prolonged old age, as her figure thickened and she became more detached from her public, Victoria shape-shifted again, from woman to monument: not just the queen of her country but also Empress of India, as she now styled herself, she cut a figure as stolid as Rodin's Balzac. The most memorable images of Victoria in her later years tend, aptly, to be sculptures, such as the statue of her created by Sir Edgar Boehm in 1887, to mark her Golden Jubilee, and erected on Castle Hill next to Windsor Castle. Seen from the back, she appears more as shape than person, a great wedge of cast bronze around which the two-way traffic is forever obliged to chicane. From the front she resembles the figurehead of an invisible vessel, as if to suggest that the ship of state would still be guided by her, even after death.

One of Queen Victoria's legacies to her successors was a lively interest in photography, the medium destined - as she presciently saw - to become the principal transmitter of images of the famous to the world at large. It is a little known fact that the Royal Collection happens to include one of the world's largest collections of nineteenth and early twentieth-century photography, much of it acquired during Victoria's reign. Small wonder that when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne, she picked the perfect photographer to record the occasion.

The man she chose was Cecil Beaton, who rose to the challenge with assurance: on the one hand using the very literalness of photography to capture her humanity, both as woman and mother; and, on the other, transcending the medium's mundane associations to create images which, despite being printed on paper from negatives, have much of the grandeur of Baroque portraiture.

Perhaps that stark divide, between the two types of royal imagery created by Beaton for Elizabeth II, goes to the heart of the challenge facing any modern king or queen: unless they expose their humanity to a degree, they run the risk of alienating their public; but they also need to assert their apartness, their sense of belonging to a world unlike that in which ordinary people live, or they will lose that aura of uniqueness which is both their birthright and key to survival.

Andy Warhol Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (1985) Private Collection

The problem has been compounded by the mass media's appetite for multiplication. Put bluntly, there are far more famous people than there ever were in the past, and the number of pictures of them in circulation is simply mind-boggling. The attendant difficulty this creates for any monarch, king or queen, is that whatever royal image they create, it is in danger of being instantly engulfed by the ever-swelling image-tides of modern celebrity. This may have been part of Andy Warhol's point when he created his well-known silkscreen image Queen Elizabeth II. Its effect was the opposite of that aimed for by most royal portraiture, because what it did was to place her fame, by implication, on a par with that of all the other famous people - the Marilyns, the Elvises, even the Chairman Maos - to whom he had accorded the same treatment.


More recently the Nigerian artist Oluwole Omofemi added another twist to this most distinctively modern form of royal imagery, the manipulated photograph. Taking as his source an official royal portrait photograph originally taken in the mid-1950s, when she made a royal visit to Nigeria, Omofemi refashions her into a kind of carnival queen for Africa, replacing her royal robes with a vivid green dress patterned with the national flower of Nigeria, the Yellow Trumpet, volumising her hair and ever so slightly darkening her skin tone: an exuberant reminder that, being Head of the Commonwealth as well as Queen of the United Kingdom and Ireland, her royal image will always be liable to a mutliplicity of such multicultural reinventions.

Chris Levine: Lightness of Being (2004)

How to create a modern image of the Queen that will emphasise her humanity while allowing her to retain a necessary sense of majesty? How to convey her celebrity, while somehow setting her apart from all the other celebrities? Chris Levine's Queen Elizabeth II: Lightness of Being, a subtly doctored photograph of Her Majesty suspended spectrally within the frame of a lightbox, proposes an impressive solution to the problem. She is poignantly present, shown in the frailty of her advancing age (the original picture was taken in 2007), every crease and wrinkle of her face caught by the camera. But she is also not quite there. Her body is a blur of pulsing grey, and she has been abstracted by the details of her costume - pearl earrings, pearl necklace, pearl encircled crown, radiant with diamonds - to something nearer an emblem than a human being. This is perhaps as close as Elizabeth II has ever come, in her royal imagery, to that of Elizabeth I: impassive, witheld, the unmoved mover. Her eyes, arrestingly, are closed. There is still room in the world, it seems, for regal mystery.

The exhibition “Power & Image: Royal Portraiture & Iconography” will be on view at Sotheby’s Bond Street 28 May – 15 June, 2022.

The Jubilee Season

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