Queen Elizabeth II by Annie Leibovitz, 2007. Official Portrait of HRH Queen Elizabeth II © 2008 Annie Leibovitz. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
On the Platinum Jubilee Weekend, a Book of the Queen’s Portraits Reveals the Symbolic and Human Face of the Royal Family
A Q&A with Alexandra Shulman, who wrote the introduction to "Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon," a collection of photos from the National Portrait Gallery in London / BY Leanne Delap / May 31st, 2022
The National Portrait Gallery in London contains 967 portraits associated with Queen Elizabeth II. A photo book published in April for the Platinum Jubilee called Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon is a desktop treasure. It’s smaller in size – not the expected coffee-table book – which adds gravitas to the sitter’s most familiar countenance.
So, too, does the introduction by Alexandra Shulman, who was editor-in-chief of British Vogue for 25 years until she stepped down in 2017. Her fourth book, Clothes … and Other Things That Matter, a memoir intertwined with a history of clothing, was published in 2020.
Shulman’s take on the official imagery of the Queen is sharp and concise, and revolves around a singular question: how do photographs of the Queen show her as symbolic and human at the same time?
The Queen is so “distinctive, utterly familiar,” in Shulman’s words, it is a wonder that each photographer has captured something unique for the record. And for the record, the photos held by the National Portrait Gallery are officially sanctioned, which means the palace approved them. They are also woven into the historical fabric of the nation.
Official portraits serve various purposes, as Shulman explains, from reassuring imagery of the Royal Family in wartime to more imposing, regal pictures of the monarch in her imposing ceremonial garments. Elizabeth herself, writes Shulman, established some of her own iconographic touchstones from a very young age, from an unchanging hairstyle to the ever-present brooches and pearls. A touching Marcus Adams portrait from the summer of 1929, when she was three, shows her wearing her first strand of seed pearls. In it, a tiny blonde curly-haired moppet in a floral dress is seen is silhouette. The Princess projected seriousness, even then.
Shulman includes a telling quote from court photographer Cecil Beaton, who in 1945 said: “Princess Elizabeth’s easy charm, like her mother’s, does not carry across in her photographs, and each time one sees her one is delighted to find how much more serene, magnetic and at the same time meltingly sympathetic she is than one had imagined.” With her work and life so intertwined in imagery, writes Shulman, it must have been a trial for the Queen to sit for so many portraits, on top of countless hours of public appearances where every facial expression was on display. It is no wonder she developed an inscrutable façade.
In this Q & A from her home in London, Shulman explains how the Queen managed to be “never contemporary” and “never old-fashioned” at the same time, in a life with official, and unofficial, cameras trained on her since birth.
Leanne Delap: The photos in Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon from the National Portrait Gallery are striking because, as you point out, they are all sanctioned. This is, you say, how the Royal Family and the Queen wanted to be seen. How has that changed over time? Has there always been a push-pull between symbolic and human?
Alexandra Shulman: There has always been a balance to be struck between the Royal Family being seen as human and connectable and symbolic, which is something “other.” We now have more of an appetite to learn about the family in a personal, human way, but with that brings the danger of an erosion of their specialness.
LD: These images of the Queen in formal portraits are such a contrast to the social-media world we live in now. How has the Queen’s consistent image – you write of her trademark style in jewellery, clothing, hairdos and even her fixed, inscrutable facial expression – helped her transition through so many changes in the image-making business?
AS: The Queen is the leader in personal branding. She has forged an image for herself to which she remains faithful and by which she is instantly recognizable. To have this embedded in the collective consciousness is invaluable and means that you don’t have to keep adapting how you present yourself. The Queen enjoys her clothes, but likes her appearance to be time-efficient, which she has achieved by sticking to what she knows.
LD: The wartime photos of the Queen and “Us Four” – her nuclear family – were crafted to be reassuring in times of crisis, and more relatable than they had been before. After the abdication scandal, the photos were intended to underscore family values. Do you see echoes of that in the work the Royal Family did during the COVID-19 crisis? The reassurance of the Queen’s message in the early days of the pandemic echoing her radio address with her sister as a girl?
AS: It’s very important that the Royal Family be “seen” in times of difficulty, and the wartime images were examples of this. The majority of imagery generated during the pandemic was via Zoom, and I don’t know how much of that is recorded, but I do know that the Queen mastered Zoom brilliantly, which is an example of her understanding of the importance of contemporary communication. Certainly the message she transmitted in the early days was hugely reassuring and I think some people were surprised by how much it mattered.
LD: Do you think the less formal photos we see today of the Queen capture more of her “easy charm,” to crib from the Cecil Beaton quote in your essay? As she ages so confidently, with so many cameras on her, do we get to see more of her personality, warmth and humour than is apparent in many of the more formal images? Or are we just used to projecting what we want to see onto her inscrutable countenance?
AS: This is an interesting question. Obviously more spontaneous imagery can present people in more accessible ways, but within the collection of portraits over the years there are several photos where you see her vivacity and humour.
LD: You say the Queen has always cared about clothes, and presentation. How do you think she transitioned her wardrobe across so many eras and styles so successfully? Was it the designers/advisors she chose? Was it her own instinct?
AS: As a young woman, the Queen tended to listen to her mother’s advice, and the first couturier she turned to was the Queen Mother’s favourite, Norman Hartnell. Once she acceded the throne, she found her own designer in Hardy Amies, and now the majority of her wardrobe is created by her dresser, Angela Kelly. I am sure that she has strong opinions on what is made for her – she doesn’t do ready-to-wear – but I suspect that she trusts those she has placed her faith in. We tend to think of the Queen as a very conservative dresser, but there are many examples where she has worn really exuberant and even trendy clothes. However, she tends to return to her safe place.
LD: Can you describe, please, how she was, as you write, “never contemporary nor old fashioned”?
AS: The Queen’s image is timeless. Her strength is that she does not need to move with the times in terms of her appearance, but she does need to appear relevant. She is 95 now, but we don’t think of her as old fashioned, nor did we consider her modern when younger. These simply were not relevant terms.
LD: What era of the Queen’s fashion is your favourite look for her?
AS: I loved the way she looked as a young wife – just before she became Queen. It was probably to do with being happy and relatively free.
Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon is published by the National Portrait Gallery, London, and is available at npgshop.org.uk.