Today is the 90th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. We all wish her a very happy birthday. Only two things were missing from the papers this morning; a reminder that the Queen picks up litter, which better than anything I have ever read typifies the good example she sets; and the mention of a single painted portrait. Several papers showed a series of 64 photos to mark each year of her reign. The Telegraph gave us 64 of her best outfits. Some very beautiful Derby outfits, especially in the 50s and 60s. My favourite of the newest set by Annie Leibovitz shows her on the steps of Windsor with her dogs, smiling, the nation’s grandmother. And photography feels truest to the Queen’s personality, as we project it.
But to stand up for the overlooked paintings, my favourite image of the Queen is this 1969 panel portrait by Pietro Annigoni. Annigoni is best known for the earlier portrait of the Queen in Garter robes, like a photograph by Cecil Beaton. He was inspired by the Italian Renaissance, and this painting has something in it of the supernatural power of Piero della Francesca, not a messiah but a ship’s figurehead the waves would bow to. At the same time it is so triumphantly modern. You hear Parry’s ‘I was glad’ in your head, and see it freeze-framed like scene from a movie. The Queen will sweep on and up into the picture, and turn and speak. It is an icon of Duty, the perfect Royal portrait, because it makes a vast abstraction real because it fits with what we believe of the sitter’s character. It is also the last transcendental Royal portrait, in a tradition stretching back to the Christ-like Westminster Abbey portrait of King Richard II, Holbein’s annihilating mural of King Henry VIII, and the Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I as the goddess Fortune.
What an exhibition they’d make together. But transcendent portraiture doesn’t suit everyone, or most periods. No one paints mortals like the Georgians, the original photographers. I challenge anyone not to agree this portrait of loveable King George II is his best, standing like the frog-footman at the top of the King’s Stair at Kensington Palace. The artist Robert Edge Pine described his portrait as ‘universally allowed to be the most like of any in being.’ (Manners and Morals, Tate 1987 p238, catalogue entry Philip Mould and Co.). I can well believe it. It’s wonderfully reassuring, almost cozy. Like walking into a room in Lord Hervey’s Memoirs.
(c) Philip Mould and Co.