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Royal portraiture, what place in the 21st century?

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
The latest royal portrait, the first of our royal Kate, by Elmsey, Glasgow-born, South Africa-reared and winner of the 2007 BP portrait prize, has provoked a sea of negative comments, as well as defensive repostes. See the Guardian on the subject. The debate is interesting on a number of counts. Do we really expect a royal portrait to tell us anything profound about the royal subject, indeed, IS there anything profound such an image could tell us about her? Waldemar Janusek’s most useful criticism of the work pointed to the fact that there hasn’t really been any really excellent royal portraiture since the 17th century.

Charles I by Anthony Van Dyck

Dismay at the image has focussed on the failure to capture Kate’s beauty. Rather, I would have thought, focus should have been on the blandness of the image. On this, though, I picked up a comment by Katherine Tyrell, who writes a popular blog Making a Mark, about the photograph of the image that has been circulating. This is what she says:
‘Paul Emsley (sic: the painter of the image) has now written to me having heard about the views I was expressing about his painting of the Duchess and my comments on the photography. He’s sent me a photograph of his painting of The Duchess of Cambridge. I can confirm that it looks nothing like the one which has been circulating in the newspapers and on the Internet. The one I’m looking at has much better colour and the transitions on tonal values are much more subtle and very much more like what I’m accustomed to seeing in Paul’s work. Which means that in the real painting she does NOT look old or drained or a vampire or a gothic horror or any of the other really nasty and mean-spirited remarks which have been made about this painting. To me this new photo indicates that the problem with the image people have seen lies entirely with the photographer and NOT the artist.’
Perhaps its wise to stand aside from media chatter and save our judgement of the image until we see it in the flesh. This story reminds me of the difficulty of photographing art work well enough to do it justice.

Posted by author: Jane Parry

13 thoughts on “Royal portraiture, what place in the 21st century?

  • Interesting how the question of the relevance of royal portraits immediately descends into the mire of press treatment of such. Without seeing the original portrait I admire the craftsmanship that has gone into the painting. This is a young, pregnant, possibly ill woman who has been captured in possibly a very sympathetic way. If the portrait was intended to be an example of contemporary art then it probably doesn’t meet our expectations which have been shaped by the grizzly horror of such exhibitions as the Taylor Wessing Prize.
    If we consider it as just another royal portrait then the artist’s objective has been met. In the image I’ve seen she looks like a normal, pregnant, maybe ill woman whose makeup shows through, and maybe she looks a little older than she is, but who knows how she currently looks in real life.
    Hopefully she won’t succomb to the stylised photos made repulsive by Charles & Diana with pony and picnic.
    Re the press treatment, is anyone surprised? It’s a celeb feeding frenzy. I saw one dirty dribbling sleazy art critic sneer at it, I assume to boost his own self importance. I’m not a royalist but those scum should be seen for what they are. I’d personally be very pleased with a similar portrait of any of my family. Is it “good” or “bad” art? From where I sit it doesn’t matter, it’s a lovely portrait.

  • Perhaps we should question why a ‘royal’ portrait is of any real interest at all? Leaving aside any questions of accuracy of rendition, does it actually have any artistic validity or is it merely an expression of assumed superiority in our society?

  • I am in agreement with Alan. I saw the Guardian in which many Royal Portraits were published and most demonstrating that the subject matter seems to dominate the output rather than the artist imposing themselves on the subject. I don’t think two sittings are enough given all the limitations placed on the artist and there can only be one outcome, something as banal as this

  • 2 Good points here. 1 re photographic rendition of this painting specifically being the thing which people, myself included, are commenting on rather than the painting itself. The other and leading on from the first in my mind is that can we expect any portrait in any medium to tell us anything let alone something profound about the subject. I don’t believe we can particularly all we can ever see is the surface. To paraphrase Duane Michals – Portraits capture nothing profound about a person nor reveal anything, how could they , what they do is share a moment with the audience that was previously shared with the artist and the subject. This inability to show more than surface is oneof the things that makes portraits so attractive to me as a medium.

    • I purposely added the equestrian portrait of Charles I since this image certainly conveys a lot more than simply an image of a man, but an image of a man representing himself as someone with a divine right to govern, above others both physically and metaphorically. I think the trappings of a portrait, where its situated, who painted it, how its painted, the negotiation about what type of portrayal etc can add a lot to an image, and that what the Charles I portrait does, but the portrait of Kate does not set out to do this, or could, but this means its not likely to be a rich viewing experience. (I say this with caution since I have not seen the real thing.) Jane

  • I don’t really know what it is well enough to look at it…I’m guessing its a photograph of a painting of a photograph of a woman posing whilst presenting herself in such a way to conform to public expectations?
    I’m not really sure what is real here if anything.

    • I wonder, what exactly is the public expectation? Are they expecting that HRH (Her Royal Highness) to be the idol/inspiration/representation of all British subjects, so she has to look pristine in every possibly way. Painting her “as natural as possible” is very offensive because “the dream of all commoners” (supposingly) has just been crushed?
      I have another silly question. I am a foreigner so I really don’t know how the system works. How does national portrait gallery decides what they display (Or, how can you get your work in to national portrait gallery, if ever)? Did this painting win some competition? Or it contains the face of someone famous? Or the royal family bought/rent that spot to show off their collection?

      • Hi Siegfrield
        On the National Portrait Gallery’s website they state:
        Under the terms of the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery maintain a collection of portraits in all media of the most eminent persons in British history from the earliest times to the present day.
        Clearly marrying an heir to the throne makes one ’eminent’. So the Gallery Director will have commissioned Paul Emsley to paint the portrait.
        Since most of the Gallery’s funding comes from public sources, you probably contributed to the cost of the commission and ongoing costs. However, since the Duchess has been a patron of the NPG since last January, she has probably raised sufficient money for the Gallery to cover the costs, but there would never be anything as poor taste as a royal directly paying for a portrait to appear in the Gallery.

  • Interesting thoughts about the quality of the photograph.
    Looking on the painters website his drawings and paintings are remarkable. Have a look at the portrait of Michael Simpson.
    Here’s a thought, there might be only so much you can do with some faces? I often prefer paintings where the face is a landscape of crevices and exaggerated peculiarities for the artist to explore.

  • I went to the National Portrait Gallery yesterday and looked at the painting. To me it just doesn’t seem to be either a likeness (she looks to be in her late forties) or to catch the Duchess of Cambridge’s personality – maybe that’s not important; who am I to say? I also looked at the Mario Testino’s photographs of the royal family – they looked much more alive and real to me.

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