The Queen’s image: how portrayals of Elizabeth II changed over her lifetime


Queen Elizabeth II must be the single most visually recorded human being in history. Literally millions of images of her exist as she has lived through a century which has witnessed a media explosion.

That was already under way in the year that she was born, in 1926, for the inherited forms of disseminating the royal likeness had already extended beyond coins, banknotes, seals, medals, sculpture and paintings to embrace photography and its use in newspapers and magazines. During her lifetime, film and television were to play crucial roles in sustaining and spreading the monarchical image as well as photography, which began controllable but became ever more intrusive in the age of the paparazzi. The medium of television also expanded: colour, once rare, became commonplace. As I write, the internet throws up almost 58 million images of the Queen in every guise.

These facts establish that during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, any attempt to control the royal image was to become increasingly difficult. But not quite impossible, for the public presence of the monarch in the rituals of state and in officially sanctioned images—ranging from her profile on the obverse of the coinage to official portraits commissioned by the palace to mark particular moments in the reign—projects a very definite storyline, which charts what was in fact an iconographical paradox, one which remains unresolved.

Cecil Beaton photographing Queen Elizabeth II in 1955, captured by an unknown photographer © V&A Images

On the one hand, the public, in an egalitarian age during which deference has gone, increasingly wishes members of the royal family to be seen to be “one of us”. On the other, there lingers a strong desire for a being set apart, a bejewelled icon embodying the nation and its heroic past, along with values and virtues long since abandoned by most of the population. That contradiction lies at the heart of the iconography of Elizabeth II, which, looked at dispassionately, is often so disjunctive that at times we could be looking at representations of two different people.

The Queen began her life as the elder daughter of a younger son and it was not until the year of George VI’s coronation in 1937 that any serious thought was given to the presentation of the new heiress to the throne. Her earliest appearances before the camera are in the main by Marcus Adams (1875-1959), a fashionable photographer of royal children, soft-focus and cloyingly sweet. In 1936, a photographer calling herself Lisa Sheridan (died 1966) was asked almost by chance to photograph the York family informally. Her pictures, more like snaps, were important not for their style but for their innovative content, visual equivalents of the revelations of the young princesses’ governess, Marion Crawford, on their childhood life. After 1937, such pictures were for official release and designed to present the new monarch, his consort and his children as a happy family doing what any middle-class family would have done at the time. They are carefully contrived presentations of the two young princesses and their parents engaged in family life and especially any activity that reflected the war effort.

Dorothy Wilding, Queen Elizabeth II, 1952 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Lisa Sheridan was not alone. There was also the society photographer Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who was to be the official photographer for the 1937 coronation (the pictures were wooden and dull) and would go on to photograph the Queen several times as Princess. After Elizabeth’s accession, Wilding was to take the hugely important image of the Queen which was to be on all the postage stamps from 1953 to 1967.

By then, a far more important image-maker had arrived on the scene: Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-80). He had taken the legendary photographs of the Queen Mother in 1939 in which, heavily bejewelled and wearing a crinoline from another age, she was deployed as seemingly inhabiting another world or floating like some vision in the State Apartments of Buckingham Palace. Beaton brought to his work for the Royal Family a huge sense of the portraiture of the past, an ability to ennoble even the most unpromising members of the royal family and an amazing technical virtuosity which, above all through his manipulation of light, endowed his sitters as though a race apart. He had created an image of the future Queen Mother where there had been none and was to have in her a firm ally. As a consequence, between 1953 and 1968 he was to be the key royal image-maker.

Cecil Beaton, Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day, 1953 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

His early portraits of Elizabeth as Princess placed her in the never-never-land occupied by her mother, but his greatest leap forward was to lie in the extraordinary series of pictures taken at the coronation which established him as unofficial photographer royal. This time the blow-up backcloth is of the upper part of Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, partly relieved by a swag of curtain, The Queen herself in her robes and wearing the Imperial State Crown and clasping both orb and sceptre. In the years to come, Beaton was to rework his formula for the Queen Mother in 1939 for her daughter, deploying the marble columns, sumptuous draperies and gilt furniture of the various palace rooms, but never again venturing, as he had in 1939, into the garden. Although he described the palace decor as the “frustrating sort… you’d see in a grand hotel or attempted on an Atlantic liner”, he set a formula which radically influenced his successors and which was reiterated by Annie Leibovitz in 2007 and by John Swannell in the pictures taken in 2011 for the diamond jubilee. This reprise of the iconography of the 1950s and 1960s during what cannot be anything other than the closing years of the reign reflect the Queen’s ascendancy to iconic status. They represent the reign as it were reliving itself in its final phases. Taken together, these palace images might be said to epitomise one vision of the Queen as queen.

There was another, however. By the late 1960s, such splendour was out of kilter with the times. “There have been so many pictures of the Queen in tiara, orders and crinoline that I felt I must try something different. Must rely,” Beaton wrote, “on a plain white or blue background—and determine to be stark and clear and bold”. The result was one of his most memorable images of her, standing attired in a simple admiral’s cloak.

That the Queen’s image called for a change of tack came from two sources. One was the realisation that photographic style had radically altered. By the late 1960s these pictures of the Queen were hopelessly dated as the pace, set by the two American masters, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, was picked up and transmuted by the lenses of David Bailey and Terence Donovan. The accent was on asymmetry and movement and an “in your face” bravura totally alien to the requirements of the palace, which called for distance and rigid formality.

Somehow a new formula was urgently needed to reflect that the palace wasn’t wholly out of tune with the social revolution of the era. It called for something that was not so assertive in terms of props but looked instead to present the monarch as a timeless figurehead presiding over the nation. Beaton achieved this by doing what he dismissively referred to as “a poor man’s Annigoni”. So far there has been no reference to any painting as being of importance, but in 1953 and 1954 the Queen had sat for the Italian painter Pietro Annigoni (1910-88) for perhaps the definitive portrait of the reign—for the Fishmongers’ Company.

Pietro Annigoni’s Queen Elizabeth II (1955), on show at the 250th Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2018
© Pietro Annigoni, All rights reserved. DACS 2022. Photograph: Stephen Chung / Alamy Stock Photo

The Queen arises, an aloof figure wearing the dark blue cloak of the Order of the Garter, no crinoline, no jewels bar pearl earrings and the Garter Star. Behind her stretches a distant wintry landscape over which she towers. From the moment that it was finished, this portrait assumed an iconic status and one must ask why. Annigoni’s work ran counter to the modernist and post-modernist styles which dominated the mid-20th century. He also came to the Queen’s portrait unencumbered by the baggage of past British royal portraiture by the likes of Gainsborough, Reynolds and Lawrence. His background was Italian and such a formula was derived from quattrocento portraits, often of women sitters, in profile, set against distant landscapes.

When he painted the Queen again in 1969 for the National Portrait Gallery, Annigoni was to repeat the formula, this time utilising a different and even more powerful frontal image with her in an enveloping cloak posed in the manner of a Madonna della Misericordia, the Virgin Mary enveloping all mankind within the generous folds of her robe. He saw, he said, the Queen alone, alone against everything: “I did not want to paint her as a film star; I saw her as a monarch, alone in the problems of her responsibility.” In both the portraits there is a solemnity absent in virtually every other painting. Both stand apart as exceptionally powerful images whose potency only grows as time passes and her reign can be seen in retrospect.

Drawing on this, Beaton successfully produced an alternative photographic formula for mid-20th-century regality, although the Queen’s face is softened compared with the distant aura in both of Annigoni’s pictures. The potency of this solution is reflected in the fact that Annie Leibovitz was to reiterate the theme in her 2007 sitting in an extraordinarily powerful image in which The Queen is presented almost as a portent, the dramatic skyscape echoing the famous “Ditchley portrait” of her great namesake, Elizabeth I, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

David Dawson’s Lucian Freud & Queen Elizabeth II (2001) © David Dawson. Courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert

In photographic terms, these are the great images of Elizabeth II as queen. In terms of painting, are there others? Perhaps the only other painter who has been able to disregard the baggage of the past has been Lucian Freud in 2001 in a portrait which is difficult to place, for it was commissioned for the Royal Collection. As a work of arguably one of the greatest British painters of the century it cannot be ignored, but it was never painted as a public image as both of the portraits by Annigoni were. It stands apart as a hypnotic aberration in which The Queen wears an historic tiara while attired in a blue day dress and ropes of pearl.

So far we have only explored one side of the public image of the Queen. The other has been the response of the palace to the all-pervading cult of ordinariness, the long-term consequence of its role in what was a “crowned republic”. The seeds of this were sown in the late 1930s and 40s, but the pressure of egalitarianism, driven on by an ever more intrusive media, demanded more and more intimate images of the monarch and her family. More even than that, as the reign progressed, the monarchy had to demonstrate that it was “value for money”, and its daily life, give or take a bit, was to be seen as only a remove or two from middle-class living.

In 1969, the palace bit the bullet and admitted the television cameras. That watershed year released the media, enabling it to cross barriers which up until then it would have been inconceivable to breach.

Much the same thing happened in the case of the visual arts. Deconstructionism and the demise of deference saw the old tiara-ed image of regal authority defiled. In the year of the silver jubilee, Jamie Reid’s record sleeve and promotional publicity for the Sex Pistols single “God Save The Queen” caused a sensation. The lyrics linked the Queen with a “fascist regime”. In a sense, this assault on the royal image made it more rather than less potent. The same might be said of Gilbert (born 1943) and George’s (born 1942) highly ambiguous postcard compositions. Although overtly conservative monarchists, their work entitled Coronation Cross [1981] is a weird deployment of postcards of Beaton’s coronation photograph of The Queen arranged in the form of a cross, the quarters in-filled with cards depicting the ceiling of the nave of Westminster Abbey. Is this casting the role of the monarch as living a life which is akin to a crucifixion? We have no way of knowing.

To these we can add Andy Warhol’s (1928-87) 1985 reworking of Peter Grugeon’s official photograph of the Queen for the silver jubilee of 1977 in terms of pop art. In this, the long tradition of official photographs is virtually laid to rest, exposed as constructs and monuments to contrived artifice. The irony is that Grugeon’s image lives on not thanks to his own powers as a portrait photographer, but to the image being in a sense ennobled and transposed by one of the century’s most acerbic commentators on fame in the media age.

In these images we have travelled an enormous distance from the safe world of the 1950s when the Queen’s image was unassailable at the apogee of a society in which hierarchy still resonated. By 2012 all that had gone. In a sense, the Queen, whether she liked it or not, had been packaged as a product in the consumer age. The line between a film on her work as monarch and head of state and a commercial is quite a fine one. The explosion of visual material on this one woman is such that the result is the reverse of what one would expect. In a sense these images tell us everything and nothing. The real Elizabeth Windsor remains an enigma.

• This feature first appeared in the June 2012 edition of The Art Newspaper to mark the diamond jubilee

• The full version of Roy Strong’s essay “The Queen’s Image: Perception and Reality” is in The Diamond Jubilee Opus, a limited-edition celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60 years as monarch, published by Opus Media Group. For details, visit


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