Last Chance to See: The Queen - Art and Image at Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

By Jenni Davidson | 07 September 2011
An oil painting of the Queen wearing a green dress against a yellow background.
The Queen, Justin Mortimer (1998). Oil on canvas. Courtesy RSA
© Justin Mortimer
Exhibition: The Queen Art and Image, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh until September 18 2011

The Queen is something of a contradictory character, both familiar and yet unknown. Her image is everywhere, but nobody knows what she actually thinks.

This sense of duality is picked up in The Queen: Art and Image, a major touring exhibition to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Part art exhibition, part social history of our relationship to the royal family, it charts all six decades of her reign through the medium of portait.

The images range from 1950s coronation photographs by Dorothy Wilding and Cecil Beaton, where she is a beautiful but slightly vulnerable young woman in her new role as Queen, to her present day status as grandmother and matriarch.

In the 1960s the primary image is of wife and mother, but also from this period there is Pietro Annigoni’s famous oil painting of the Queen wearing a red admiral’s cloak set against a stormy sky. She looks sombre and gives the impression of sovereignty being a heavy responsibility that she carries alone.

In complete contrast to this, though, American photojournalist Eve Arnold’s fun and informal photo shows her holding an umbrella and smiling up at the rain.

A print on a lightbox of the Queen wearing a robe and crown with her eyes closed.
Lightness of Being, Chris Levine,(2007). Print on lightbox, courtesy Mr Kevin P Burke and the Burke children© Chris Levine
The 1970s and 1980s mark a turning point where royalty was no longer an untouchable area of respect. We see Jamie Reid’s controversial poster for the Sex Pistol’s single God Save the Queen, followed by Gilbert and George’s postcard montages and Andy Warhol’s stylised screenprints, which make her look like a film icon.

The focus of the more recent pieces, from the 1990s and 2000s, questions who the Queen is and what relevance royalty still has in the contemporary world.

One of the most striking and unusual exhibits is Medusa by Hew Locke. It is a 3D sculpture where the Queen’s head, so familiar from postage stamps and coins, is built up of plastic flowers, decapitated dolls, strings of beads and a pair of large yellow eyes. It is both kitsch and frightening, reminiscent of a Dia de los Muertos shrine.

Lucian Freud's controversial 2001 painting is stylised almost to the point of caricature and goes against all tradition of royal portraiture. It depicts the Queen as old, wrinkled and somewhat fierce-looking.

Given that the Queen's head is such a ubiquitous image that we barely notice it, the exhibition is surprising in its variety, from photograph to oil portrait, postmodern painting to hologram. It provides just a little insight into who the woman who’s been our head of state for the past 60 years really is.

  • Open 10am-5pm (7pm Thursday). Admission £7/£5. Book online. Exhibition continues to Ulster Museum, Belfast, October 14 2011 - January 15 2012; National Museum Cardiff, Cardiff, February 4 - April 29 2012; National Portrait Gallery, London, May 17 - October 21 2012.
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