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June 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1431

The Elizabeth II style

In the steeplechase to become the world’s longest reigning monarch of a sovereign country, Queen Elizabeth II, who celebrates her Platinum Jubilee this month, is rapidly approaching the winner’s enclosure. It is now nearly seven years since she overtook Queen Victoria, who previously held the record for a British monarch, and in a little over four months she will have surpassed the reign of her contemporary King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after 70 years and 126 days on the throne of Thailand. The one monarch still ahead of her is Louis XIV, at 72 years, but he came to the throne when he was four years old and his reign encompassed a regency. [1] The grand siècle is fixed in the popular imagination largely because of the way the King deployed the arts to celebrate his regime. The relationship between art and monarchy in the reign of Elizabeth II is by comparison elusive, yet it deserves more serious consideration than it is usually given.


Since she has granted no interviews after coming to the throne, Elizabeth II’s views on art have to be deduced. Unlike her mother, husband and eldest son, she has not formed an art collection of her own; she seems to have decided early on that her one private extravagance would be breeding racehorses. An insight into her involvement with art is provided by a modest book that has been overlooked by most of her biographers. Published in 1963, The Queen and the Arts by Harold A. Albert looks at first sight to be a typical royal potboiler, a surmise strengthened by the fact that the author published numerous books on topics connected with the royal family under the pseudonym Helen Cathcart. It is in fact strikingly well informed and Albert acknowledges the help of both Oliver Millar and Anthony Blunt, who vetted the text. Despite its title, it focuses almost exclusively on the visual arts, since it was written to mark the opening of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 1962. The book appears to be the only source for the information that the Queen once tried to buy a significant Impressionist painting as a present for her mother, Claude Monet’s Blue House at Zaandam, painted in 1871 and now in a private collection, when it was offered at Sotheby’s as part of the Weinberg Collection in 1957. She was decisively outbid when it fetched £22,000 – the modern equivalent would be at least £500,000.


The anecdote helps to explain why the Queen has not sought to add major works to the Royal Collection, which she inherited on her accession, although it is a possession of the Crown, not of the Queen personally. The Royal Collection has in fact grown substantially during her reign, but the majority of that increase is accounted for by official gifts, few of great artistic merit, although there have been some thoughtful purchases of, for example, items with Jacobite associations, which for historical reasons are not otherwise represented in the collection. Albert recounts in detail one intriguing royal venture into contemporary art, the acquisition of works by such artists as Barbara Hepworth and Lucy Rie to furnish a private suite of rooms at Windsor Castle designed in 1960 by Hugh Casson (a key influence on the royal family’s taste), an experiment that was not repeated. It is no fault of the Queen that the priorities of the monarchy and of contemporary artists should have diverged so decisively in the twentieth century; even so, given the length of her reign, it is disappointing how very few portraits of her are significant works of art. The best known example of a leading contemporary artist being commissioned to paint her, Lucian Freud’s portrait of 2000–01, is a failure.


The Queen’s duty to the Royal Collection has been amply fulfilled: in terms of conservation, cataloguing and academic research it is administered to at least – and often above – the standards of national collections. Access to it has increased greatly in the course of her reign, by a generous programme of loans and publication, by exhibitions in the Queen’s Galleries at Buckingham Palace and Holyroodhouse, and by the opening of Buckingham Palace to the public in 1993. Can it be said, however, that there has been an Elizabeth II court style? The question has perhaps never been asked, but the visual coherence of a reign has often come into focus only in retrospect. It is not so long since it was assumed that the last royal patron of any influence was George IV, but – thanks in part to exhibitions mounted by the Royal Collection – it is now clear that Victoria and Albert’s taste for what might be called the Raphaelesque Renaissance in architecture and art was widely admired and copied.


In an influential article, Alan Powers has argued that it is only historians’ over-emphasis on Modernism that has prevented the recognition that between the wars there was a ‘George VI style’ in architecture and design that encompassed classical elegance – in the form, for example, of the neo-Georgian buildings of Raymond Erith and the typography of Stanley Morison – and the romanticism of Cecil Beaton and John Piper, personal favourites of the Queen’s mother.[2] One reminder of the style is the royal coat of arms designed by Reynolds Stone for the 1937 coronation, subsequently used on the front of British passports. Powers points out that it was at the Queen’s insistence that Francis Meynell, founder of the Nonesuch Press, was brought into oversee the typography and graphic design required for the Coronation in 1953, resulting in the participation of the designer Joan Hassall as well as Stone.


The George VI style continued with vigour into the 1950s – it flowered in the Festival of Britain – and the way it sought to bring a modern sensibility to play in revitalising royal imagery was continued in, for example, the mise-en-scène designed by the Earl of Snowdon for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 and the rebuilding of St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle after the fire of 1992 in a modern Gothic style. The design for the hall, by Sidell Gibson, was chosen by a committee headed by the Duke of Edinburgh, a modernist at heart. More subtly, there is the way that the traditions of royal ceremonial have intersected with developments in society: to take two strikingly contrasted examples, the marriage in 1981 of the Prince and Princess of Wales ushered in the new romanticism of the 1980s and the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh in 2021 powerfully embodied the isolation imposed by the covid-19 pandemic. Even those who regret that the Queen has shown no interest in becoming a patron of cutting-edge artists can acknowledge that during her reign royal ceremonial has functioned at a high level as a genre of performance art.


[1] The record for the longest reign of any monarch, held by King Sobhuza of Swaziland (now Eswatini), is unlikely ever to be surpassed at nearly 83 years (1899–1982) but he was not an independent sovereign until 1968.

[2] A. Powers: ‘Was there a George VI style?’, Apollo (October 2004), pp.73–77.