Remembering Queen Elizabeth II, the British sovereign who perfected the fine art of monarchy

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In May 1939, when Princess Elizabeth was 13 years old, her father, King George VI, lent 19 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the British Royal Collection to the great Leonardo retrospective at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan. Such a loan from the royal holdings of Old Master drawings was most unusual, and offered in 1939 as part of diplomatic moves to dissuade the Italian leader Benito Mussolini from following the example of Nazi German aggression in Czechoslovakia. At the same time the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), in London, lent one of its most valuable possessions, the Forster Codex of scientific drawings by Leonardo, while, for some weeks, the Louvre, in Paris, even considered lending the Mona Lisa and The Virgin of the Rocks. All to the same, ultimately fruitless, diplomatic purpose.

Given the fragility of the international situation, the royal librarian, Owen Morshead, suggested that the royal loan be made for the first month of the exhibition only. The King agreed and the drawings were duly returned to Windsor Castle—and the Forster Codex to the V&A—in July 1939 on the pretext that the International Congress of the History of Art was visiting London and Windsor that month. Most private British lenders—they included the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Devonshire and the sculptor Arthur Pollen—had opted for an alternative arrangement whereby their loans of works by Leonardo were concealed by the Italian organisers, once the exhibition closed in October 1939, in a secret vault under the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. The pictures remained there undetected for the duration of hostilities, and were safely returned to their owners in late 1946.

The soft power of the Royal Collection

When she succeeded as Queen on her father’s death in 1952, Elizabeth II became custodian in trust of the Royal Collection, including the great holdings of Leonardo drawings acquired by Charles II and George III, and a series of royal palaces to house it. In two of those buildings—Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace—she also lived with her husband, Prince Philip, and brought up their daughter Anne, Princess Royal, and three sons, Charles, Prince of Wales, Andrew and Edward. The collection’s holdings, formed largely since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and consisting of around 1 million objects—including more than 20,000 drawings and paintings and rich holdings of furniture, porcelain, jewels, textiles, books, manuscripts, arms and photography—came increasingly into public view as her reign progressed. The Queen’s Gallery was opened at Buckingham Palace in 1962—and remodelled and reopened in 2002—to house rotating exhibitions from the collection, while the palace state rooms were opened to summer visitors for the first time in 1993. Another Queen’s Gallery for temporary exhibitions was opened at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh in 2002.

When the Queen held state or official dinners, to entertain heads of state, diplomats or VIPs on behalf of the British government, the highlight of the evening was usually a visit to some part of the Royal Collection—to a temporary exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery when at Buckingham Palace, or to carefully chosen selections from the Royal Library when at Windsor—in a demonstration of awareness of the soft power, the power to delight, that the collection wielded. Following the formation of the Royal Collections Trust in 1993—when the Queen had been on the throne for 40 years—lending to outside institutions, which had once been so exceptional, became more frequent. By the early 21st century the collection had become part of mainstream art history for the first time through multiple and regular loans to international exhibitions.

As Supreme Leader of the Church of England, the Queen had titular charge, in the form of its 16,000-odd churches and 42 cathedrals, of the most important single corpus of Britain’s built heritage from the early Middle Ages onwards—despite the depredations wrought on their carved and painted decoration by iconoclasts and puritans. She also had the right to appoint some of the trustees of the Church Commissioners, who oversaw the established church’s assets. As the figure in whose name British justice is done, the Queen was also symbolic head of the considerable built, decorative and fine art heritage owned by the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts of Justice.

The Queen as ‘performance artist’

The controlled, carefully evolving, visibility of the Royal Collection during Elizabeth II’s reign was paralleled by changes in the Queen’s own image over seven decades, in a demonstration of exquisitely choreographed performance art, one that showed remarkable powers of concentration, stamina and presence of mind.

Elizabeth became a heritage entity in her own right, and part of her country’s identity for overseas visitors. The idea of the Queen, and what she stood for, her personal grande marque, became as much a part of a cultural tourist’s agenda as a visit to Stratford, Canterbury, or the Lake District, or an encounter with regular royal ceremonial such as Trooping the Colour, the Changing of the Guard or the flying of the Royal Standard wherever the monarch was in residence. Hers was an art for royal succession’s sake, in which she time and again set aside her ready wit and easy smile at public events to present a straight, imperturbable visage for the sake of her ultimate duty: the passing of the monarchy to her heirs.

In 1992 she lamented—in voiceover recorded for the television documentary Elizabeth R—that, with her father’s sudden death 40 years earlier, she “in a way … didn’t have an apprenticeship” for assuming the throne: “It was all a very sudden taking on and making the best job you can … and accepting the fact that ‘here you are’ and it’s your fate … it is a job for life”. In her seven decades as Queen she gave her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren numerous demonstrations of the work of the sovereign, many of them captured on television or video. But no amount of observational familiarity with the work required could fully prepare them for encountering the solitary responsibility of the role, which had been laid on Elizabeth’s head at her 1953 Coronation.

Princess Elizabeth of York

She was born, the eldest child of Bertie, Duke of York, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, the London house of her maternal grandfather, the 14th Earl of Strathmore, a peer of ancient Scottish royal lineage. Her younger sister, Margaret, was born in 1930, at Glamis Castle, the Strathmores’ historic seat in Angus, and the family lived quietly enough in the first 10 years of Elizabeth’s life, between 145 Piccadilly, in London, and Royal Lodge, Windsor.

Princess Elizabeth of York, as she was styled, was third in line to the British throne after her grandfather, King George V, her uncle Edward, Prince of Wales, and her shy, retiring father. There was still every prospect that her uncle Edward might marry and have children who would come before her in the royal succession. But when he, as Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in 1936, Elizabeth’s father became king and she the heir apparent in whom all the hopes of the monarchy’s future was vested. In an instant, she was set apart, to be educated in the art, and performance, of royal duty.

Following the 1937 Coronation, the 11-year-old Elizabeth and her sister appeared in front of their parents, waving eagerly to the crowds below, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace—a rehearsal for 85 more years of such appearances. During the Second World War, Elizabeth and Margaret lived largely at Windsor Castle, two of over three million children who were evacuated to the country to avoid enemy bombing. They were educated at home, by tutors, and the subject of fervid public and press interest in their latest doings and modes of dress, while their parents spent long periods at Buckingham Palace, which was bombed 16 times, nine of them direct hits, during the London Blitz of 1940-41.

Second Subaltern Windsor

The royal family became prominent media players in morale-boosting visits and photoshoots. In 1943, Elizabeth was photographed tending allotments at Windsor Castle as part of the “Dig for Victory” campaign to produce food on the home front. In March 1945 she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), qualifying as a driver and mechanic, with the honorary rank of Second Subaltern. On Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945, the royal family responded to cries of “we want the King” and appeared several times on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The King wore the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. The Queen and Princess Margaret both wore blue dresses, but Elizabeth, heir to the throne, wore the belted khaki green uniform of the ATS, the battle dress of the armed forces that she would succeed her father in leading. It was one of Elizabeth’s early excursions in the coded use of clothes that she came to deploy so subtly but deliberately as monarch.

Heir presumptive: Princess Elizabeth (left) on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth, King George VI and Princess Margaret on VE Day © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans—www.agefotostock.com

George VI had taken to the role of a morale-boosting broadcaster during the war, and Princess Elizabeth made her debut on the radio in 1940 when she and her sister were guests on Children’s Hour. On her 21st birthday, in 1947, in a broadcast from a royal tour of South Africa, she dedicated her life to the Commonwealth of nations that had once been part of the British Empire, then amounting to one-quarter of the world’s population. “I declare before you all,” she said, “that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

Her wedding at Westminster Abbey in 1947 to her third cousin Philip Mountbatten—formerly Prince Philip of Greece, and created Duke of Edinburgh immediately before the nuptials—was the first global broadcast event in which she was the centre of attention, and the focus of a ceremonial procession through the streets of London. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio, and highlights were also screened on television later in the day. The footage was discreet and deferential, and largely of the procession to and from the abbey, with a single camera on the married couple as they and their attendants processed out down the nave—their faces and dress obscured by a rod-bearing church official who set a painfully slow pace in front of them.

Becoming Queen Elizabeth II

Following her father’s death on 6 February 1952—the news was broken to her by Prince Philip while they were on an official visit to Kenya—the new Queen returned at once to London, and gave a first public performance that exemplified how solitary her role would be: solitary in the demands it placed on her presence, even when she was at the heart of an attentive, expectant crowd.

Dressed in black, she is first to descend the airliner’s steps at Heathrow Airport, her husband a few deferential steps behind her, to be greeted by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, government ministers, and her father’s brother the Duke of Gloucester. Each politician, each member of the aircrew, is greeted with a smile and a handshake, first by the Queen and then by her consort. The human need for contact has been met. The royal couple proceed without a pause into their car, carrying the royal standard to indicate that it conveys the monarch, and Elizabeth II’s performance as a sovereign who is seen and present to her audience, is efficiently and briskly under way.

One of her first media duties that month was to sit for the society photographer Dorothy Wilding, who took 59 formal images for use on postage stamps from 1953 to 1971, and on coins and banknotes produced by the Royal Mint.

The Coronation: a global media event

The 1953 coronation was a ground-breaking live outside broadcast—one in which the mystery of monarchy became part of a shared national, and international, experience, with a total television audience of over 20 million viewers (a further 10 million listened on radio). Watching the television footage of the Coronation 70 years after the event, the core ritual of coronation feels timeless, with several moments of pure theatre. Music is central to the performance. As the Queen waits for the pivotal moment—the anointing, shielded from the congregation’s view by a canopy held above her—she stands motionless as the choir leans thrillingly into Handel’s soaring, impossibly grand, anthem Zadok the Priest, written for the coronation of George II in 1727. Her attendants remove her train and jewels and, wearing a simple white robe, hung around her coronation dress, she goes to be anointed, before taking on new layers of dress, including a cloak of Cloth of Gold, derived from a tradition set at the crowning of Byzantine emperors.

She bears an ever greater physical weight, a metaphor for the psychological weight of her office-for-life, as she is invested with all four layers of coronation robes and the regalia of office, concluding with the Imperial State Crown. From beginning to end the young Queen performs an emotionally, historically and physically burdensome ceremony with serene gravity, in what feels like a rehearsal, physical and metaphorical, for the seven decades of public display that lay ahead of her.

The use of time and tempo

The coronation coverage acted as an early demonstration of the important part played by tempo and the keeping of time in the art of Elizabeth’s monarchy. The correct, unwavering, pacing of the ceremonial, with not a moment wasted, is part of what gives it power. The coronation set a template for the ceremonial processions to come—the annual State Opening of Parliament (another chance to wear the Imperial State Crown); the carriage procession up the racecourse at Royal Ascot in June; the Queen on horseback and in uniform during the annual Trooping the Colour in London; the more informal walking among the crowds during official engagements at home and abroad, where the Queen set the rhythm in response to her reception and her husband was occasionally deputed to let her know if the royal party was falling behind schedule. Part of the business of monarchy was to be on time for engagements and ceremonies, and its chief office-holder came to expect the same punctuality of others.

One of the Queen’s most closely watched public performances was her annual attendance of the Remembrance Sunday service in London to commemorate the war dead of the First World War and all subsequent conflicts. Each November, up until 2017—when, at the age of 91, she ceded her role to Prince Charles—she would stand motionless and alone in Whitehall dressed in black at the front of a family echelon of her husband and children—and latterly grandchildren—as Big Ben struck the eleventh hour, and buglers played The Last Post, followed by a minute’s silence. Then she would walk evenly towards the Cenotaph and, without breaking stride, advance across its shallow steps, one foot to each broad stone tread, leaning smoothly into a shallow lunge position as she laid her wreath in place, all in one movement, before stepping backwards, no less exactly, into the positions taken in her advancing strides. This sombre ceremonial dance was done without the hint of a pause or an adjustment, and to an unvarying tempo, forwards and backwards, in a demonstration of balletic precision—one that her younger family members sometimes struggled to match—for a ceremony which is rich in the use of music, marching and martial precision.

A symbol of international prestige

The Queen assumed the monarchy when Britain was still mired in postwar austerity, a colonial and military power on the wane, and many of her early overseas visits featured independence ceremonies for the country’s former colonies. These visits, carried out at the government’s request, and starting with a six-month tour of the Commonwealth from November 1953 to May 1954, were a conduit of soft power that helped maintain the country’s prestige whatever the diminution of its economic and military power. In February 1954 the Queen and Prince Philip arrived in Sydney by ship and in the succeeding eight weeks visited all its state and territory capitals and were seen in person—at a time when Australia had yet to launch its television service—by three-quarters of the country’s population.

In the succeeding seven decades the royal couple made a number of state visits of enormous symbolic significance, designed to reinforce important alliances or to ease historic tensions. In 1986 they visited China and Hong Kong in 1986 during negotiations to return Hong Kong—a British colony from 1841 to 1947—to Communist Chinese rule in the following year. In 1994 they were President Boris Yeltsin’s guests in Russia, to promote trade between the two countries, five years after the fall of the Soviet Union and 76 years since the murder of the Queen’s cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family. In 1995 they were guests of President Nelson Mandela, the year after his election, in their first post-apartheid state visit to the country.

‘The bridge that the Queen herself had built’

One of the most remarkable royal tours was the once-inconceivable first state visit to the Republic of Ireland, in May 2011, something that had felt an impossibility during the 30 years of sectarian troubles in Northern Ireland. It came 95 years after the proclamation of the Irish Republic against British rule; 90 years after the partition of Ireland in 1921; 32 years after the murder in Ireland by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) of Louis Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle and an elder statesman of the royal family, in 1979; and 13 years after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.

The Queen had been invited by Mary McAleese, the second successive woman to be president of a modern, Europe-facing, post-clerical Ireland, and the visit, which had opened with the most stringent security in place on the streets of Dublin, concluded as a personal triumph for the Queen and Prince Philip, and for the Irish president. The Queen made historically charged visits to the most important sites of Ireland’s modern political and social heritage. She went to Croke Park, Dublin, headquarters of Gaelic games in Ireland and scene of the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre during the Irish war of independence, when British forces had opened fire on the crowd at a match, killing 14 civilians; and to the national garden of remembrance in Parnell Square, created in 1966 by the architect Dáithí Hanly, with a central sculpture by Oisin Kelly, where she paid silent tribute to those killed fighting the British for Irish independence.

At such resonant sites the stakes around the personal deportment and tone shown by the royal couple could not have been higher, given Britain’s troubled and bloody colonial history in Ireland for over 500 years. The Queen caused a positive sensation by opening her address to the state banquet at Dublin Castle—the architectural and political symbol of Britain’s former rule—in immaculately pronounced Irish, and for the intelligence and conciliatory tone of her speech, which was praised by Irish politicians of all stripes, including those Sinn Fein leaders who had refused to meet her during the visit. “She had the look of a woman,” one journalist wrote in the Irish Independent, “for whom the weight of history had just got a lot lighter.”

During the visit, she used the universal language of the thoroughbred horse as a diplomatic tool in the horseracing industry’s heartland, by visiting the Irish National Stud, and nearby the Aga Khan’s Gilltown stud and Coolmore stud, Co Tipperary, the largest racehorse breeding operation in the world. At all three locations she was completely in her element. A fine horsewoman herself, she was always at home around ponies and horses, she already knew many of the people who ran the establishments personally, and had sent her mares to be covered by their stallions. The visit was seen as a breakthrough in relations between Britain and Ireland and the following year Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a former leader of the Provisional IRA, who had refused to attend the Dublin state dinner, met the Queen at a charity event in Belfast. In 2014, McGuinness was the Queen’s guest for dinner at Windsor during the state visit to Britain of the Irish President, Michael D Higgins.

Typical of one of the Queen’s more run-of-the-mill overseas visits was the November 1968 tour of Chile, shown in the 1969 television documentary Royal Family, during which the Queen fulfilled 104 engagements in 14 days, and shook hands with 2,500 people. A packed agenda, and constant display of the royal personage, was standard for royal tours at home and abroad, but the performance was not all receptions and dance bands. A caption to a photograph from the Chile visit, on the Royal Collection website, is an example of the commercial mundanities that went into flying of the flag overseas: “The Queen listens as a student explains the use of some British machinery during her visit to a technical training institute in Santiago, Chile. Attendants stand in the background.”

Off duty: The Queen, and corgis, at Sandringham, her private estate in Norfolk Anwar Hussein / Alamy Stock Photo

Seats of power

Much of the business of monarchy—or “the Firm” as it was referred to in-house—was handled from Buckingham Palace, but the Queen’s preferred base was Windsor Castle, a royal seat for over a millennium, set in one of the finest parks in Britain, where she spent most weekends. Her private estate at Sandringham, Norfolk, where Christmas was often celebrated, had a special emotional association as it was there that her father had been born and had died. Summer holidays were taken at another of her private residences, Balmoral, in Aberdeenshire, little changed since Queen Victoria’s day, where she was largely off duty—although the red boxes with official papers to study and sign arrived daily and the prime minister came for an annual stay—and where she was glad, as she said in the 1992 documentary Elizabeth R, to sleep in the same bed for six weeks at a time.

Prince Philip was, as the Queen publicly acknowledged, her strongest support in mounting the daily exhibition of monarchy. She also depended on her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, for assistance at state and family events. And on her sister Margaret, who formed a glamorous couple with her husband, the photographer and designer Tony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon, and acted as a patron of numerous arts bodies. For all Margaret’s marital and personal travails—prevented by her royal position from marrying a divorced man, Peter Townsend; divorced from Tony Snowdon in 1978; the subject of avid tabloid coverage of her subsequent relationships—she remained a loyal ally, referring with unfeigned pride to the doings of “my sister the Queen”.

The Queen was not untouched by personal loss. There was her father’s early death; Mountbatten’s assassination by the IRA in 1979; the shocking death of her daughter-in-law Princess Diana in a Paris car crash in 1997; the death of first her sister and then her mother in 2002; and in 2021 the death of Prince Philip. At her husband’s funeral, the Queen cut a lone figure, dressed in black, sitting under the soaring roof of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, her Covid-19 pandemic-induced isolation a poignant marker of her lost partner in the performance of monarchy, and a reminder of her solitary responsibility as head of state and Queen.

The media monarch

Television had made the Queen’s coronation a truly shared national experience. It was part of the Queen’s duty to be seen, but that duty, and the encroachment of media coverage, had to be held in balance with the need to maintain the mystique. Royal Family, the first royal television documentary, was shown on BBC and ITV in June 1969.

The programme itself is startling, seen through 21st-century eyes, for the untrained openness with which nearly all members of the family move and talk. To the 1969 audience this was a first view of the monarch as they had never seen her before: a relaxed, witty materfamilias and leader of her household. (In the 1960s she still took a travelling retinue of 100 with her from palace to castle to country estate.) Particularly striking is the scene of a family barbecue at Balmoral, where the Duke of Edinburgh oversees the cooking, the Queen advises Prince Charles on the making of the salad dressing, and there is an exquisite ripple of tension when she steps up to the grill and asks—perhaps a little too briskly—how the cooking is going.

The programme was a media and public sensation in its time. By the end of 1969, when both the BBC and ITV re-broadcast the documentary over Christmas, it was estimated that three-quarters of the British population had seen the programme, and there was a fear of overexposure. The Queen’s annual Christmas Day broadcast to the Commonwealth was accordingly replaced with a written statement.

The ‘annus horribilis’

The Queen let the television cameras into her daily life again in the lead-up to her Ruby Jubilee, with the documentary Elizabeth R (1992). She did so with a clear purpose as she recorded several voiceovers for the programme, some of them revealing. For all the opening up of the Royal Collection during the Queen’s reign, access to personal papers relating to previous monarchs and their children had been carefully controlled by the Royal Library, but in Elizabeth R the Queen is filmed saying to a guest at Windsor Castle what a pity it was that Princess Beatrice had rewritten her mother Queen Victoria’s diaries to make them “less frank”. And she also revealed that she kept a diary herself, though one that was less detailed than that of her great-great-grandmother Victoria.

The Queen is escorted by the chief fire officer around the grounds of Windsor Castle, 20 November 1996, following a catastrophic fire in the state apartments Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Elizabeth R was broadcast in what the Queen later described in a public speech as an annus horribilis. Its release was closely succeeded by a catastrophic fire at Windsor Castle—where a devastated monarch, in raincoat and scarf, was filmed talking to firemen and examining the damaged contents laid out in the courtyard. The main damage had been to the semi-state rooms, including St George’s Gallery. (The damaged rooms were restored to the form created in the wholesale early 19th-century reconstruction of the castle for George IV, when the remarkable Versailles-like sequence of frescoes painted by Antonio Verrio for Charles II had been swept away.) The fire at Windsor was followed by the separation of the Prince of Wales and his wife Diana Spencer, whose marriage in 1981 had brought a new public attention to the monarchy, and whose increasingly public estrangement in the succeeding decade, had contributed much to the Queen’s troubles.

Elizabeth R was criticised for ignoring the known marriage difficulties of the Queen’s children. In 1992, Princess Anne was divorced from Mark Phillips, while Prince Andrew and his wife Sarah Ferguson separated, as did the Prince and Princess of Wales. Indeed, the documentary has a number of scenes where the Princess of Wales appears, on the surface, to be happily and smilingly integrated with the social life of the royal family: taking part in the dancing of Scottish reels at the ghillies’ ball at Balmoral; attending a state dinner; and joining with Princess Margaret at Windsor Castle in helping the Queen to show the family’s presents to the visiting president of Italy, Francesco Cossiga.

For the royal family, engaging with television proved to be a case of holding a tiger by the tail—something dangerous to embark on and no less dangerous to let go of—most dramatically in the interviews that first Prince Charles and then Princess Diana gave respectively to the journalists Jonathan Dimbleby and Martin Bashir in the lead-up to their divorce in 1996. In 1994 Prince Charles sensationally told Dimbleby about his affair with his future second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, creating a press furore which overshadowed his parents’ historic visit to Russia. In 1995 Diana told Bashir that she too had had an affair, that Prince Charles’s staff were waging a campaign against her and, in reference to Parker Bowles, that there had been “three of us” in the marriage. After the Diana interview, the Queen wrote to the separated couple, advising both parties that it was time for them to divorce.

During her reign, the Queen graduated from radio to television for her annual Christmas address to the Commonwealth, which she kept low-key, with an emphasis on the importance of community, family togetherness and religious faith. But she made unplanned addresses in 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, and then in 1997 following the death of Princess Diana. Following Diana’s death, the Queen and Prince Philip had opted to stay at Balmoral to comfort Charles and Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, out of the public glare. But after a spectacular outpouring of public grief, with the laying of fields of flowers outside Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace, and accusations that the monarch was out of touch, the Queen, Prince Philip and their grandchildren came to London to join the public mourning. The Queen gave a live television address about Diana’s death, with the crowds outside Buckingham Palace visible behind her, in which she said, with clear deliberation: “What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart”. This series of events—in which the Queen was seen to be finding her way in a challenging public emotional landscape—was subsequently the subject of the 2006 film The Queen, in which the title role was played by Helen Mirren.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh with Prince Charles during his investiture as Prince of Wales, 1969 PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A television double act

Ten years after Diana’s death and funeral, and the stress it put on the public image of the royal family, the Queen ventured back into television documentary with a six-part series, Monarchy: the royal family at work. Filming started in 2006, the year of the Queen’s 80th birthday and the series was broadcast in 2007, the Diamond anniversary of her marriage to Prince Philip. One of the most interesting threads of this series is its emphasis on Elizabeth and Philip as a double act.

In one scene, a moment of jeopardy arises during a formal engagement, and the royal couple, rather than calling on their assembled flunkeys, go into action themselves. The wife of the President of Ghana—the guest of honour on a state visit to Britain—has difficulty with stairs, and the lift at Buckingham Palace breaks down just moments before the Queen and Prince Philip are due to process with the president and his wife into a formal reception. Philip heads off to find a solution—the president’s wife ultimately uses the luggage lift—and the 80-year-old Queen is seen rushing as fast as her long dress will allow her to check on progress, muttering audibly “What lives we lead!” and bending double over a landing rail to confirm that all is well.

The series also emphasises the enduring demand for the Queen, the star act, the prima donna, to be present and on stage, and the disappointment caused whenever she has to cancel an engagement at short notice, something that typically happened only once every four or five years. No one, not even her experienced and plain-spoken husband, was a completely acceptable understudy in the provision of human contact. The Queen is due to open the new Arsenal FC stadium in north London, but has to cancel at short notice after injuring her back. The club’s chief executive can barely conceal his disappointment and that of the club’s star players. Prince Philip duly takes his wife’s place, and honour is fully satisfied when the club’s management and players are, at a later date, asked to Buckingham Palace to meet the monarch. Not one of the players misses the trip and excited palace staff have the bonus of being greeted by the charismatic club captain, Thierry Henry.

Media challenges

A quarter of a century after the Charles and Diana interviews , and nearly a decade after the Leveson Inquiry had revealed the extent to which the British tabloid press had habitually hacked the phones of members of the royal family in the 1990s and 2000s, the Queen endured one royal media annus horribilis after another.

In November 2019 her second son, Andrew, Duke of York, gave an interview to the BBC Newsnight journalist Emily Maitlis, in an ill-advised attempt to clear his name after widespread criticism of his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein,  a US financier and convicted sex-offender, and accusations by one of Epstein’s victims, Virginia Giuffre, that she had been sexually trafficked to Andrew while still a minor. Following the disastrous interview, Andrew was ultimately forced to step down from public life, in May 2020. And in January 2022 he returned all his honorary military affiliations and charitable patronages to the Queen before making an out-of-court settlement with Giuffre in her civil action for sexual assault against him in a New York court. The Queen was seen to have acted decisively, in league with Charles and William, the heirs in waiting, to distance the monarchy, and its succession, from the scandal-ridden Andrew.

The first unravelling of Andrew’s reputation coincided with the announcement in January 2020 by Prince Harry and his American wife Meghan Markle that they were stepping down as working members of the British royal family. They moved to Markle’s home state, California, and in March 2021 gave an interview on CBS to the star US broadcaster Oprah Winfrey. In that interview, Markle, who had had a successful career as a television actress before marrying Harry, said that she had considered suicide in the month’s following their marriage in 2018, and that an unnamed member of the royal family had worried about the skin colour of their unborn child. Eight months later the Diana interview of 1995 was back in the headlines when the BBC made a public apology for the programme, saying that Bashir had deceived Diana’s brother, the historian Charles Spencer, in order to obtain the interview.

In Elizabeth: The Unseen Queen (2022), shown to mark her platinum jubilee, the monarch made use of her own voiceover (some of it recorded for Elizabeth R 30 years earlier)  and of much unseen material—her parents’ home cine films and those she made herself when her children were young—that gives a touching insight into the daily royal family life from the 1920s to the 1950s. Most remarkable are the candid frames of her setting off from the palace for her 1953 coronation, sporting the 1820 diadem and talking animatedly to all and sundry, and returning a crowned queen, wearing the Imperial State Crown, talking no less excitedly, walking down the corridor in full regalia, her three-year-old daughter Anne hanging on to one hand and the sceptre held in the other. “The years have slipped by so quickly,” she says, “and growing older is one of the facts of life … but I have seen one coronation, and been the recipient of another, which is pretty remarkable.”

Coded messaging

The Royal Collection proved to be an easier medium for the Queen to handle than broadcast media, although the human factor could never be discounted. The art historian Anthony Blunt, director of the Courtauld Institute and surveyor of the King’s (later the Queen’s) Pictures from 1945 to 1972, was exposed in 1979 for spying for the Soviet Union by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and stripped of his knighthood—15 years after he had confessed to his treachery and been granted immunity from prosecution. In A Question of Attribution, his 1988 play about the Blunt affair, Alan Bennett created a scene between Blunt and the Queen in which they have a conversation, heavy with subtext, about forgery and secrets, in which Blunt is uncertain whether the Queen knows of his guilt, and the Queen plays expertly with Blunt’s uncertainty. (In real life, she had been informed of his treachery at the time of his confession in 1964.)

Elizabeth II, like her vaunted predecessor Elizabeth I, had a feel for coded behaviour, and an intelligence that delighted in solutions to cryptic clues. Her feel for words and word play was publicly expressed in the aptness with which she named the racehorses she owned and bred. And her use of coded messaging, especially in dress, was expressed sometimes in a very public manner—the Wattle evening dress by Norman Hartnell that she wore on her 1954 tour of Australia was a clear-eyed tribute to the country’s national flower, and was lapped up by the country’s then largely royalist population—and sometimes in a more covert fashion.

When the then US president, Donald Trump, made a publicly unpopular, and largely unwelcome, state visit to Britain in 2019, the Queen carried out her duty in hosting the government’s guest and his wife, Melania, at Windsor Castle, and doing honour to the office of US President. But there was much speculation on social media that the three brooches she wore during his visit served as a coded—if deliberately deniable—reprimand of her guest. On the first day she wore a flower brooch, a gift from Barack and Michelle Obama, Trump’s predecessors and rivals, with whom the Queen had formed a close bond; on the second day it was a brooch given by the people of Canada, a country Trump habitually derided; and on the third day a brooch usually worn during mourning.

Behind that coded behaviour lay Elizabeth’s remarkable eye for detail. In each of the television documentaries made about her and the royal family between 1969 and 2007 there is a scene where she is seen in the process of inspecting and approving some installation, whether it is a Royal Collection exhibition of her dresses before its opening to the public, a line of guardsmen at the opening of a state visit or a dining room at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle before a state dinner. In each case, her servants or functionaries remark that no detail—of a new type of lighting at a far corner of the room, the positioning of a vase, or the finer points of the how the table has been laid—escapes her eye. The coded message conveyed by state dinners—with massed guests and acres of gold plate, glass and royal porcelain laid out on a 160-foot table in St George’s Hall, Windsor Castle—was that the Queen’s visitors, from countries large or small, would all be treated, on behalf of the Government, with the same consideration and in a setting of equal, and unvarying, splendour.

Royal favourite: Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his wife: Jan Ricksen and his wife Griet Jans (1633) Royal Collection

Art and artists

While the Queen was neither a connoisseur nor an artist in the manner of her mother and husband, both of whom collected the work of some of the finest 20th-century British artists, she was an avid custodian of the matchless works in her care, seen speaking with detailed authority and enthusiasm on pieces from the Royal Collection in one documentary after another. Her favourite picture in the collection was said to be Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his wife: Jan Ricksen and his wife Griet Jans.

She was one of the most recognisable and also one of the most painted figures of her era or any other, depicted by some of the most interesting artists of the day from Pietro Annigoni in 1955 to Lucian Freud in 2001 and by photographers ranging from Cecil Beaton to Annie Leibovitz. For the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 the National Portrait Gallery mounted a touring exhibition, The Queen: Art and Image. The Royal Collection takes undisguised pride in owning the Freud portrait, a gift from the artist, and in having acquired in 2012 four portraits of the Queen by Andy Warhol—who once declared “I want to be as famous as the Queen of England”—from the Royal Edition (sprinkled with crushed glass) of his 1985 screenprint series Reigning Queens.

And where an honour was in her gift—rather than that of the prime minister of the day—the Queen showed a distinct interest in artists and the art world. Members of the Order of Merit, founded by Edward VII in 1902 and limited at any one time to 24 living figures who have contributed to the arts and science, are chosen by the monarch of the day. The great and good of the art world awarded the Order of Merit by Elizabeth over seven decades include Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Clark, Sidney Nolan, Ernst Gombrich, Lucian Freud, Anthony Caro, Jacob Rothschild, Neil MacGregor, David Hockney and the architect Norman Foster. (Francis Bacon was reportedly offered the order and declined it.)

A retreat from the stage

As the Queen began to back off the stage in the year of her 96th birthday and her platinum jubilee, she was slowed by a dose of coronavirus and by reduced mobility. But delighted her great grandchildren, and a brand new global audience, when she appeared in a televised scene with an animatronic model of Paddington Bear, marmalade sandwiches and all.

When she received a new prime minister, Liz Truss, in September 2022—the 15th of her reign, the first being Winston Churchill in 1952—she did so at Balmoral, in frail health, staying in Scotland rather than enduring the stress of travelling to London.

In the year of the Platinum Jubilee, Prince William and his wife Kate, and Prince Edward and his wife Sophie, viewed as four of the safest pairs of hands among the Queen’s younger descendants, made troubled visits to countries in the West Indies to mark the Platinum Jubilee. Those visits, in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, showed that the idea of the UK still treating some of its former colonies as “realms”, under the free association of the Commonwealth, so carefully nurtured by the Queen over 70 years, had passed its time. A celebration of the 400th anniversary of the British settlement at Jamestown, Virginia—something that seemed natural during a state visit to the US in 2007—would in the 2020s seem tactless, a reminder of the death and destruction wrought by European settlers on native Americans and the iniquity of the slavery that they also brought to North America.

“You can do a lot if you are properly trained,” Elizabeth said in 1992, “ and I hope I have been”. She was above all things “present”. She was seen. She watched and listened. For seven decades: longer than any head of state before her, with the exception of Louis XIV of France, who had succeeded as king at the age of four. She understood that sympathetic members of the population had grown to find succour in her existence and in her public image. “I think,” she said in 1992, speaking of the personal importance she attached to the hundreds of letters she received daily, that ultimately “the buck stops here”.

For the extraordinary lived experience behind that power of personal engagement, and because the political, social and media environments have changed to vastly since she succeeded as Queen more than 70 years ago, Elizabeth II will be an almost impossible act to follow: as a respected and widely loved sovereign, a cultural figure with global prestige, and a past master in the art of monarchy.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor; born London 21 April 1926; succeeded 1952 as Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories; succeeded 1952 as Head of the Commonwealth; crowned Queen 1953; married 1947 Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh (later Mountbatten-Windsor; died 2021; three sons; one daughter); died Balmoral, Aberdeenshire 8 September 2022.

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