The British Royal Family, like other such dignitaries, has been the subject of portraits stretching back centuries. In the pre-photography era, a painted portrait was the only means to preserve one’s likeness for future generations to admire one’s beauty and opulence. When marveling at these portraits, one should bear in mind the onus on the painter to depict the Royal in a flattering light; one must not displease one’s patron, lest one be punished for it.
One of the most famous royal portraits is Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1537 portrait of Henry VIII, decked out in his illustrious attire, albeit minus the accoutrements denoting his royal status, such as crown and scepter. Instead, he is poised with fearlessness and self-confidence, conveying his power through his stance and domineering gaze. The painting also depicts Henry as more formidable than he actually was; his legs were, in fact, much shorter, and he appears much younger and healthier than his 46 years. Although the painting is now lost, it survives in many copies, and is still of the most recognizable portraits of the early modern period.
Of course, there are also the unofficial portraits, when artists decide to create an image of the royals without their commission or consent. Andy Warhol’s Queen Elizabeth II allows her majesty to retain her dignity while being given a Pop art makeover – Warhol’s source material was in fact the queen’s official Silver Jubilee photograph, released for the momentous occasion in 1977. Despite their unofficial status, the works were acquired by the Queen for the Royal Collection in 2012.
Other portraits range from the unflattering to the downright weird; let’s look at the latter first. When the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce commissioned Stuart Pearson Wright to paint a portrait of their president, Prince Phillip (also known as The Queen’s Husband, or the Duke of Edinburgh to use his official title), you can bet they weren’t expecting a bare-chested Phillip with a sprig of cress sprouting from his finger tip. The prince rejected the portrait before the additions of the bluebottle and green finger; he reportedly exclaimed “godzooks!” upon seeing it, and when asked by the artist if he’d captured a likeness, retorted “I bloody well hope not!” A head and shoulders version was created for the Society, although supposedly the Prince has never seen it. The artist completed the original and had his own unveiling a year later.
And now for the most recent Royal portrait to cause a stir; Paul Emsley’s official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. The portrait, which avoided the pomp and ceremony that usually dominates Royal portraits, divided opinion among art professionals. The naturalness of the work earned praise from Royal portrait artist Richard Stone, who praised its “lovely informality” and “warmth.” Others, however, were less generous in their critiques of the work. Art critic Waldemar Januszczak said he was “disappointed,” while other went a lot further in their criticism of the artwork. British Art Journal editor Robin Simon declared it “rotten” and an “out and out disgrace” and art critic Brian Sewell described it as “sickening.” American art critic Jerry Saltz also threw his tuppence-worth in with an article in which he proclaimed the work was “unqualified outright drivel.” While the Duchess was reportedly delighted with the portrait and declared that it was “just amazing,” as a former art history student, one can only hope her Royal Highness was merely being polite. The portrait was also subject to a number of unflattering photoshop makeovers in the wake of its unveiling.
Kestin Cornwall offers contemporary pop art interpretations of the Duchess of Cambridge, which thankfully avoid the lackluster, dowdy aesthetic of her official portrait. Cornwall juxtaposes explosions of colour with the neutral tones of the Duchess’s face, and in some playfully adds a Mickey House helmet to her head. His tongue-in-cheek works also circumvent the grandeur of official portraits, while his titles play on the privileged position held by members of the Royal family. Next time the Royals are looking for a portrait artist, perhaps they should look him up….