|HM Queen Elizabeth II|
oil on canvas
52 X 40 cm
Happy Birthday, Your Majesty! This past Saturday, April 21st, was the actual (not the official) birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, and this year is a very special one indeed. Not only is the Queen celebrating her 86th year on the Earth, she is also celebrating her 60th year on the British throne, a reign second only in duration to that of Queen Victoria. For the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, special events are being held throughout the year and around the globe, including a touring exhibit organized by the National Portrait Gallery featuring over sixty of the "most remarkable and resonant portraits"¹ of the Queen made during the past six decades.
|HM Queen Elizabeth II, 1969|
Though the show, The Queen: Art & Image, promises to showcase some quite remarkable images, there have been far too many portraits made of the Queen for them all to be included. One image which unfortunately seems to missing from the exhibit is Pietro Annigoni's iconic Fishmongers' portrait of the Queen from 1955 (Annigoni's less popular 1969 portrait of the Queen, above, is in the show).
|HM Queen Elizabeth II, 1955|
There is much which can be written about Italian painter, Pietro Annigoni (1910-1988); he certainly deserves a post devoted entirely to his person and career. He was a passionate and controversial man, with outspoken views, especially against Modern Art; his former student, Michael John Angel described him as "the most pessimistic and cynical man I've ever met;" and the producers of a recent biographical film on Annigoni described him as "a bohemian, a drinker, a fighter and a womanizer."² Such endorsements seem hardly capable of encouraging a wealthy London organization to commission a portrait of the Queen of England, and yet, in 1955, Pietro Annigoni was the man chosen for that honor.
Annigoni had moved to London in 1950, but after peddling his portfolio to the Bond Street galleries without success, he had returned to Florence, dejected, within three short months. But a week later, he was summoned back to England; a self-portrait which he had forgotten had been submitted to the Royal Academy, had been accepted to the annual exhibit, and it was the stand-out hit of the Academy show. He soon became known within the London art circles, and within the next two years, had earned two solo shows on Bond Street.
When the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, one of London's 108 chartered Livery Companies, set out to rebuild their stately headquarters near London Bridge, they decided to commission portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh for their hall. In May of 1954, a small Portrait Committee was established by the Company, and they quickly concluded, "We have great difficulty in suggesting a British artist. In our view the work of the best of them since the war – which has included many portraits of the royal family – has been disappointing."³ Annigoni had more of the qualities they were looking for than anyone else they knew. And with the Fishmongers, Annigoni's temperamental reputation worked in his favor: Annigoni was known for bravely refusing to paint both Mussolini and Hitler, and in a city still recovering from World War II – the Fishmongers' Hall itself was being rebuilt after suffering bomb damage from air raids – such actions were quite favorable for his being selected.
Annigoni very nearly turned down the commission, however. Having no understanding of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers status and importance in the City of London, he thought the group was only a small collection of pescivendoli⁴ (fish sellers). Luckily, an English pupil saw the commissioning letter⁵ and explained to Annigoni the significance of the overture. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II would go on to make Annigoni's career.
'When I painted it I tried to show Her Majesty not simply with the regal dignity of a queen,' said Annigoni, 'but also as she appeared to me – a beautiful young woman.'⁶
Queen Elizabeth proved to be one of the best models with whom Annigoni had ever worked. At their first meeting, he was quite nervous, but the Queen immediately set him at ease. Standing by the window, she began talking to him casually in French. "You know," she said, "when I was a child, I used to spend hours in this room looking out of the windows. I loved watching the people and the cars down there in the Mall. They all seemed so busy. I used to wonder what they were doing and where they were all going, and what they thought about outside the Palace."⁷ And as she spoke her face lit up with the exact expression – youthful, almost child-like – which the artist sought.⁸ "I saw her immediately as The Queen who, while dear to the hearts of millions of people whom she loved, was herself alone and far off," stated Annigoni in his autobiography, An Artist's Life. "I knew then that was how I must show her.”⁹
For the next four months, Annigoni went to Buckingham Palace every day, painting in the Yellow Drawing Room on the first floor. He had requested 30 sittings from the Queen, but she agreed to only
15. Each sitting lasted from an hour-and-fifteen minutes to an hour-and-a-half.¹⁰ "This was a lot of time for the Queen to give," said Annigoni, "but I am used to many more sittings than that."¹¹ After the Queen would leave the room, Annigoni continued to work for the next two to three hours, either from memory or from a mannequin which had been dressed in the robes of the Order of the Garter.
Near completion of the portrait, however, Annigoni threatened a "slow-down" strike. He had found out that under the British copyright law of the time, reproduction rights rested with the owner of a painting, and not the creator of the work. Because of the concerns over copyright, Annigoni had never signed a contract with the Company of Fishmongers. Initially, the Fishmongers would have retained the rights in the United Kingdom, while Annigoni was welcome to reproduction rights outside the Queen's sovereignty, but after six months negotiations, the Fishmongers capitulated to the artist's demands. In exchange for a donation made to charities overseen by the Fishmongers, Annigoni was able to retain his copyright in the UK.
|Sir Herbert James Gunn, 1953-56|
Despite the painting's cool reception among art critics, Annigoni's portrait became a huge success with the public, and it soon completely eclipsed the official state portrait of Her Majesty painted by Sir Herbert James Gunn. Photographic reproductions were made of the portrait and sold throughout the British Empire, and when the painting went on display at the Royal Academy show of 1955, it attracted over 286,000¹² visitors. The image was even reproduced on stamps and on currency throughout the British Commonwealth. No other portrait of the Queen has seemed to have generated such positive popular sentiment and been so universally admired. It is truly the iconic image of an iconic woman.
|"Well, dear, I don't know much about Art, but I do know what I like."|
Vicky (Victor Weisz)
New Statesman Magazine, May 7, 1955
OTHER PORTRAITS OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II
|Isobel Peachey, 2010|
(commissioned by Cunard)
|Jemma Phipps, 2006|
(commissioned by the Ascot Authority of Queen Elizabeth II)
|George Condo, 2006|
(when displayed at the Tate Modern, this earned the nickname "The Cabbage Patch Queen")
|Rolf Harris, 2006|
|Jeff Stultiens, 2003|
|Peter Blake, 2002|
|Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, 2002|
|Lucian Freud, 2001|
|Sir William Dargie, 1954|
|Sergei Pavlenko, 2000|
(commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Drapers)
|Andrew Festing, 1999|
|Robert Wraith, 1998|
|Susan Ryder, 1997|
(commissioned by the Royal Automobile Club)
|Tai-Shan Schierenberg, 1997|
|Anthony Williams, 1996|
|Michael Leonard, 1985-1986|
|Justin Mortimer, 1998|
(official portrait of the Queen commissioned by the Royal Society of the Arts)
|Sir Terence Cuneo, 1953|
¹ "The Queen: Art & Image," National Portrait Gallery, London, retrieved April 24, 2012 from [www.npg.org.uk/whatson/the-queen/the-queen-art-image.php].
² Annigoni: Portrait of an Artist, retrieved April 24, 2012 from [www.mycompass.ca/annigoni.html]
³ Somers Cocks, Anna, "The Queen's Diamond Jubilee: A True Icon," The Art Newspaper, Issue 232, February 2012, retrieved April 24, 2012 from [www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/The+Queen's+Diamond+Jubilee%3A+A+true+icon++/25544].
⁶ Matheson, Anne, "Queen's Portrait his Best Work: Italian Artist Wins World Fame with Royal Painting," The Australian Women's Weekly, Wednesday, May 4, 1955.
⁷ Somers Cocks.
⁸ Cullen, Tom, "Princess Comes to Annigoni," The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday June 23, 1957, p. 23.
⁹ Somers Cocks.
¹² Somers Cocks.