Skip to main content
Menu

The Royal she

by Inga Walton, 22 May 2019

Lady Jane Grey, c.1590-1600 (also known as The ‘Streatham’ portrait) Artist unknown
Lady Jane Grey, c.1590-1600 (also known as The ‘Streatham’ portrait) Artist unknown

The international touring exhibition Tudors To Windsors: British Royal Portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, London traces the development and propagation of the monarchical image as an expression of dynastic, political and social power. Showing at Bendigo Art Gallery until 14 July 2019, the exhibition surveys nearly 500 years of the visual representation of monarchs and their families, accompanied by a retinue of their courtiers, favourites, ‘frenemies’, ministers, and deadly rivals. It brings together over 150 works spanning five royal dynasties, including paintings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs, revealing the royal countenance in all its iterations. 

For royalty, then as now, sitting for a formal portrait was a time-consuming business. Such works – whether marking an important event, rendered as diplomatic gift, or commissioned to mark the bestowal of patronage or military appointment – were carefully calibrated. The zenith of art and power in alliance, portraits perpetuated the mystique of monarchy, consolidating a ruler’s prescribed image in the public mind. The monarch would often employ an official court painter, or ‘Principal Painter-in-Ordinary’, with a studio large enough to sustain high-level production of the royal image en masse, and often a painter of miniatures for more personal gifts. The modern era saw the photographic medium transform the dissemination of the royal image, signalling a new, more immediate, and more democratic approach to state portraiture.

Amidst the grandeur and pageantry of the monarch’s traditional role, the prospect of direct female rule was, for many centuries, met with ill-disguised dread and deep suspicion; it was considered ‘unnatural’, and incompatible with the premise of the ‘divine right of kings’. Amongst the parade of consorts, daughters and mistresses, Tudors To Windsors offers an insight into the manner by which court artists represented the ‘aberration’ that was the female monarch.

As the teenage Edward VI (1537-53) lay dying, his desire to consolidate Protestant hegemony in the realm led a ‘Devise for the Succession’ to be drawn up by his regency council, and issued as letters patent. In this document, Edward attempted to settle the crown on his first cousin once removed, Jane Grey (c. 1537-54), and exclude his half-sisters on account of their illegitimacy – the heir presumptive (and staunchly Catholic) Mary, and Elizabeth. Known as the ‘Nine Days’ Queen’, the ill-fated Jane was executed by her cousin Mary I (1516-58), England’s first undisputed (and later reviled) regnant queen.

Queen Elizabeth I, c.1592 (also known as The ‘Ditchley’ portrait) by Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger

The three-quarter-length posthumous work Lady Jane Grey (c. 1590-1600), also known as the ‘Streatham’ portrait, is an inferior copy likely based on a contemporaneous original, now lost. It depicts the putative ‘Jane the Quene’ in accordance with her rank and status as a great-granddaughter of the first Tudor monarch Henry VII (1457-1509). Wearing an opulent crimson gown in the severely pyramidal shape common to fashion in the 1550s, the subject is adorned with valuable gold and pearl jewellery, with billiments on her French hood; a necklace and two large pendants; ouches (precious stones set in gold mounts and sewn into place) on the sleeves; and a pearl girdle with another large pendant. The subject’s pose conforms to the conventional format for portraiture of high-ranking women of the Tudor court; her piety and education are emphasised by the prayer book she holds. As the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ gained in notoriety, Lady Jane achieved a significant ‘afterlife’ as a Protestant martyr and symbol of virtue; she was the subject of numerous works of religious polemic, literature, romanticised art, and latterly, two feature films.   

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was an anomaly: a young sovereign with no intention of subordinating herself to a husband, as her sister had done so disastrously by marrying Philip II of Spain (1527-98). As the Supreme Governor of the Church of England she was the embodiment of both temporal and spiritual authority in the realm, a status which frequently brought Elizabeth into conflict with men in public life who contended she was fit for neither. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth proved a shrewd and wily political tactician, skillfully deploying her femininity, and the unprecedented nature of her position, to every advantage. Elizabeth sought to emphasise her lineage, and the continuity of the Tudor dynasty, by drawing on the grand-scale portraiture instigated by her father Henry VIII (1491-1547) to elicit obedience and awe from her subjects, and, more importantly, generate fear amongst her enemies.

Elizabeth instigated a personal propaganda campaign that transfigured her from woman into untouchable icon. With a template of her likeness approved by the Serjeant Painter for the production of repetitions, the fabricated ‘Mask of Youth’ persisted well into her old age, as the cult of ‘Gloriana’ grew. Control  and policing of the Queen's image was a constant struggle for the Privy Council in terms of censorship, and the destruction of inferior copies (particularly engravings). Elizabeth's portraits are replete with complex symbolism and allegory, often aligning her with the goddesses of antiquity, particularly lunar deities. The full-length Queen Elizabeth I (c. 1592) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger represents the apotheosis of the ruler’s iconography – the ‘Virgin Queen’ bestriding the nation, as the woman and her kingdom become one. The largest extant painting of Elizabeth – later cut down by three inches either side – it is known as ‘The Ditchley’ portrait after the stately home in Oxfordshire. (Elizabeth’s feet rest on Oxfordshire in the work.)

Elizabeth visited Ditchley’s owner, Sir Henry Lee (1533-1610), in 1592; he served as the Queen’s Champion for many years, and was Gheeraerts’ patron in the 1590s. The work was painted as Elizabeth faced the last decade of her life: her nemesis Mary Stuart was forced to abdicate in 1567 and was executed in 1587; the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588; and it was tacitly acknowledged that James VI (1566-1625) of Scotland, Mary’s son, was the only viable successor to both thrones. Gheeraerts depicts Eliza Triumphans, her indomitable and semi-divine presence commanding cosmic control of the elements. She wears a jewel in her hair in the form of an armillary (celestial) sphere, an emblem representing the eternity of God’s universe, and banishes a storm to her right (her power) to usher in the sun (her glory). The scale and magnificence of Elizabeth's white gown (the colour of purity and chastity), her person ablaze with jewels, was intended to confound viewers. It reinforced the almost messianic role she had come to play at the centre of the English state, and as a Protestant heroine throughout Europe. 

Mary, Queen of Scots, c.1560-92 Artist unknown

The 2018 film Mary, Queen of Scots is the latest of several productions to speculate on the fatal rivalry between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Mary Stuart (1542-87) returned to her native land in 1561 after the death of her first husband, François II of France (1544-60). Her Catholicism, dynastic pedigree, and marital eligibility caused immediate consternation for Elizabeth and her ministers, who correctly surmised Mary would become the focus of intrigue as a candidate for the English throne. The small panel Mary, Queen of Scots (c. 1560-92) depicts an idealised and somewhat jaunty image of the monarch as she might have appeared to her Scottish subjects, wearing a black ensemble trimmed with pearls and a velvet beret topped with white feather jutting over the image border. Mary’s already contested authority in Scotland waned further following her impetuous marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (1545-67) in 1565. Darnley was Mary's half-first cousin through the different marriages of their grandmother, Margaret Tudor (1489-1541), widowed Queen-consort of Scotland, and the older sister of Henry VIII.

Queen Mary II, c.1692-94 Attributed to Jan van der Vaart

The exile of James II (1633-1701) in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 brought both his daughters by his first wife Anne Hyde, Duchess of York and Albany (1637-71) to the throne. Mary II (1662-94), and her husband William of Orange (1650-1702), became joint sovereigns following James' ignominious flight to France. Attributed to Jan van der Vaart, the portrait Queen Mary II (1692-94) was actually based on an earlier portrait by William Wessing, when the then Princess of Orange was still in the Netherlands. The crown and sceptre have been painted in to reflect Mary’s new status, but she does not handle them, and in practice Mary ceded most of her authority to her husband. Mary’s death from smallpox left William to rule alone; the couple had no children, and he declined to remarry.

William’s sister-in-law Anne (1665-1714) succeeded him as the last Stuart monarch, since she and her husband Prince George of Denmark and Norway (1653-1708) had a calamitous reproductive history.

Queen Anne, c.1690 by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet

Of Anne’s seventeen pregnancies, the couple's only surviving heir, Prince William of Gloucester, died at the age of eleven. It has since been suggested that Anne’s dreadful obstetric record of miscarriages and stillbirths may have been a result of the autoimmune condition Hughes syndrome. Mary I had faced a similarly humiliating public ‘failure’ over her ‘phantom’ pregnancies of 1554-57, experiences that exposed the breach between the physical woman and the monarchical obligation to provide an heir. The imposing full-length work Queen Anne (c. 1690), by Sir Godfrey Kneller, reflects the sober but quietly tenacious character of this unfairly derided queen. The rather indistinct classical dress allows the painter to hearken back to the Elizabethan aura of benevolent omnipotence.

Anne’s personal tragedies tend to detract from the fact that her reign achieved military success in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), ironic since it was occasioned by the failure of Charles II (1661-1700) of Spain to produce a male heir. The conflict concluded with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), whereby England became the primary commercial power in Europe. Anne’s personal advocacy achieved The Acts of Union (1706-07), which brought the kingdoms of England and Scotland together formally as Great Britain. She has recently been the subject of renewed interest owing to the 2018 film The Favourite, a tragi-comic tale of desperate rivalry between two aristocratic cousins at the court, for which Olivia Colman won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

No monarch in the British isles has reigned as long as Elizabeth II, nor has there been one whose public image has undergone such varied interpretations. The Queen allowed her 1953 coronation to be televised, enormously increasing the emotional impact of the momentous event on the nation. Sir Cecil Beaton produced the official images using a pre-prepared backdrop of Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey. Beaton’s central portrait of the enthroned monarch, in her gold regalia and wearing the Imperial State Crown, has a stylistic continuity with Sir George Hayter’s painting Queen Victoria (1863). Based on the State Portrait Hayter produced of the young Queen in 1838, both the archaic nature of the ceremony and the singular isolation of her position is abundantly clear.

Seldom has a contemporary artist understood the difference between authentic (private) identity and the variable construct of outward (public) appearance in the mass media age as keenly as Andy Warhol. He loved to associate with nobility and royalty, and once said he ‘wanted to be as famous as the Queen of England’. In 1985 he produced a portfolio of sixteen screen prints (based on existing portraits) entitled ‘Reigning Queens’. Queen Elizabeth II was printed with four motifs in different colour-ways, the format and random geometric shapes reminiscent of the sheets of postal stamps that already bear her likeness, emphasising the ubiquity of her public persona. The striking lenticular print Queen Elizabeth II (‘Lightness of Being’) (2007) by Chris Levine shows the monarch, most unusually, with her eyes closed, her halo of white hair crowned with the George IV State Diadem (1820). Displayed on a lightbox, it bears a thematic resemblance to the Ditchley portrait of her namesake, in terms of presenting the Queen as an otherworldly, almost mystical figure. Both works perpetuate the notion of the anointed queen as the feminine, sacred mother-goddess of the nation.

Few other public figures in history have been so adept at deploying the potency of their image as Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-97). Her beauty, charisma, and distinctive approach to her public role profoundly altered popular attitudes towards the institution of monarchy. Diana’s life was lived almost entirely in the glare of the world’s media – from the period leading up to her engagement as a naïve nineteen year-old in February 1981, to her shocking death in Paris sixteen years later. Her extraordinary global fame, perpetuated through millions of photographs, both official and candid, arguably eclipsed any other figure of the twentieth century. Diana’s unexpected transition from the future Queen-Consort to the immortal ‘People’s Princess’ is illustrated by two contrasting portraits.

A regal study by Terence Donovan (1990) shows Diana as a fully realised Windsor icon, wearing the Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara (1913) on loan from the Queen, and a magnificent couture ensemble commissioned for a State Banquet at the Elysée Palace in 1988. Such official photo sessions were a regular occurrence, conceived to generate suitable images for media distribution, with prints often signed and framed to give as gifts to dignitaries. In the final photo shoot prior to her death, the recently divorced Princess posed for leading fashion photographer Mario Testino (1997). The sensational images appeared in Vanity Fair magazine to promote the charity auction of Diana’s royal wardrobe at Christie’s, as she publicly divested herself of both the strictures and conventions of her former life. Although never a queen, Diana’s influence continues to reverberate through the House of Windsor via her sons, just as the poignancy of her portraits beguiles subsequent generations.