Alexandra Shulman reflects on the most iconic images of The Queen through the years
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-living, longest-serving monarch, passed away yesterday at the age of 96. Here, in an article originally published in April 2022, former editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman looks at the most iconic images of The Queen through the years. Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon is a collection of key imagery celebrating the life and 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II, from intimate family photos to the majestic formal portraits that have defined public perception of the monarch.
It is a curious fact that in today’s image conscious world, where every one of us is able to produce pictures of ourselves adjusted to our idealised requirements, the person who has been the subject of the most images of all is a 95-year-old woman who has probably never fiddled around with an Instagram filter or Photoshop.
HM Queen Elizabeth II, born in 1926, has lived through the greatest changes in the creation of images of any monarch in the history of the world. Aside from the traditional painted portraits and drawings that were for centuries the method of royalty publicly positioning themselves, she has also had photography, television, social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the visual scrutiny of a massively enlarged world communication network with which to contend. And much of this is not in her control.
Since she was born, there has been scarcely any element of her life that has not been recorded by somebody else, from the postcard of her as a sweet baby girl in an adorable bonnet to the immensely tragic pictures beamed around the world of her seated alone, due to pandemic restrictions, in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, at the funeral of Prince Philip, her husband of seventy-three years. The majority of pictures in this collection show us the Queen in a formally documented manner and, because they are deliberately arranged and sanctioned, they provide a fascinating insight into how she – or in the very early images, her parents – wished her to be seen.
All these representations of the Queen can tell us so much of the time in which they were created and what the monarchy wanted us to feel about them. It has often been said that part of the key to the Queen’s success in her role throughout her long reign is that she has so clearly made public service and an overriding sense of duty the mainstay. But, when you look at so many of the pictures here, you see how they are about something else too. Something more emotional. They are attempts at connecting us to this family, which needs to be both relatable and yet something quite other.
The task of being at once symbolic and human is not simple, and this is true now more than ever when we crave, and perhaps expect, a sense of intimacy. So much contemporary documentation of famous people is intended to look as if it were the ‘real’ person, even if in reality the image is as much a construct as a Cecil Beaton portrait. Our expectations of what we are allowed to see has changed. No longer is the distant monarch entirely satisfactory, nor can she be just like us. Images of the Queen, in a way that is not so distant from fashion photograph, need to be aspirational. She has to appear just the right, attainable side of perfect. But, unlike a fashion photograph, we need to believe and trust in her.
Indeed, as Princess Elizabeth reached adulthood, the country was at war and it could be said that in some ways the royal family had a ‘good’ war. Still recovering from the epic shock of the abdication of Edward VIII, the Second World War gave George VI and his family an opportunity to establish themselves in the minds of their people. They were reassuring figures during this time of crisis and needed to be seen, which they were mainly through the many photographs they released in those years. We have the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in 1940 in front of their broadcasting microphones, dressed identically in neat wool jackets and non threateningly normal striped jerseys, Elizabeth with the script in her hand. She was launching a voice to go alongside the pictures.
The Queen may not always be hugely interested in fashion, but she has always cared about her clothes, in recent years taking pleasure in matching her patterned dresses to the bright fabric of her coats, and always accessorizing every outfit with the astounding collections of diamond brooches she owns. And such a signature style has served her well, helping her live up to expectations. As a monarch, her clothes have always had to conform to regal demands – to allow her to be seen from a distance, to be functional and not to disappoint. People want to see the Queen and they want her to look as they expect. Distinctive and utterly familiar.
She is symbolic, out of this world, a distanced figure clad in the panoply of royalty. In more recent years, we have seen the Queen presented in this manner far less often, but, even in a more everyday mode, she loses none of her majesty. She remains one of the contemporary world’s true icons.
An edited extract from Elizabeth II: Princess, Queen, Icon by Alexandra Shulman
£14.95, National Portrait Gallery Publications