Putting the Queen in her place

It reminds us that the art of portraiture, like our history, is only trivial when we are determined to find it so
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RUN, DON'T walk, down to the Mall Galleries, in central London, to have a look at the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the portrait of the Queen they've commissioned.

Really. I know, I know; portraiture is in a bad way, and portraits of the Queen are not normally anyone's idea of interesting art. Even if you like portraiture, as I do, an annual exhibition like this one is not, generally, a very exciting experience. Most of the paintings here are richly self-satisfied paintings of richly self-satisfied people, embarrassing objects to anyone but the sitter's immediate family.

All the same, from time to time a serious and profound statement, a statement worth agreeing or disagreeing with, can emerge in the most unlikely places. And this is it: a serious and profound statement about the future of the country, and its past. The fact that it is set down, bizarrely, among hundreds of toadying portraits of heads of Cambridge houses and boastful family groups should not stop us going to look at it and engaging with this splendidly awkward visual argument.

It is by a painter of no great reputation; Andrew Festing is, apparently, a former captain in the Rifle Brigade. It is certainly a highly competent piece of work, being an excellent likeness, and the composition is both complex and grand, so that the eye is struck immediately, and slowly drawn in to a rich assembly. But, despite the fine academic skill of the painting, the remarkable thing about the portrait is not its handling of impasto or its confident grasp of the sitter's personality. It's the substantial, and rather devastating, volume of radical ideas the painter has discreetly packed into an official portrait of the head of state.

The Queen is depicted in the outfit she wears for the State Opening of Parliament. The State Opening is the one occasion the Monarch and the two Houses of Parliament come together. It is an occasion customarily derided for the archaic and intricate symbolism of its ritual. What its critics rarely understand, however, is that many of those apparently quaint rituals express a fundamental truth about the constitution, that the monarch and the upper chamber are ultimately subject to the wishes of the elected house.

At the State Opening, the monarch and the House of Lords sit and wait for the House of Commons to turn up. The door of the lower chamber is slammed in the face of the Queen's messenger. And, later in the day, before the Queen's speech is read to the Commons, a bill is given its first reading, thereby demonstrating the utter indifference of the Commons to the will of the Crown. It is not, really, an empty picturesque ritual; the morning makes a series of substantial and even rather aggressive points about the limits within which the British monarch is constrained.

And Festing has certainly depicted the Queen dressed to open Parliament for a reason. In his picture Van Dyck's famous portrait of the family of Charles I is behind her. Two Chelsea Pensioners stand in front of the Van Dyck, their halberds positioned so that they seem to be carrying the heads of King Charles and Henrietta Maria. In this context, the Queen's outfit is not just a spectacular white dress but a serious piece of symbolism. She is dressed to enact the ceremony which has been designed to demonstrate the limits of the Crown's powers over Parliament, and behind her is the monarch whose death established those limits.

The argument is pursued by the presence of the Chelsea Pensioners. Are they there to guard her, or are they rather unlikely sans-culottes? The one on the left is the only figure in the painting whose gaze engages with the observer; the Queen herself is looking to the right. This is perfectly in accord with the conventions of late 18th century group portraiture. The great masterpieces of Reynolds and Gainsborough rarely let the principal figures in a group look directly into the viewer's eye. In Reynolds's masterpiece, the great group portrait of the Duke of Marlborough and his family, it is only one of the youngest children, playing a joke, who is allowed to look outwards.

However, this convention has a very paradoxical result. In the end, we know that the most powerful figures in a group portrait will not deign to look at us; we also feel that the small girl or the servant whose gaze fixes us has claimed some unexpected but real power.

In the real world, we know, this small girl comes a long way down the ladder of power within the family. But through the transforming conventions of art, she looks into our eyes, and we share the secret and surprising knowledge of her authority.

Festing's Chelsea Pensioner looks at us. Perhaps we are tempted to think that he is only allowed to because he is not a very important person, compared with the Queen. But he looks at us, with King Charles's head seemingly on the end of his halberd, and within the picture he is an important person. And perhaps outside the picture too. His uniform looks picturesque and quaint, but it is the mark of someone who almost certainly fought bravely in the war to preserve democracy; the same democracy that defeated King Charles.

It looks, initially, like a superior product of the English heritage industry. And it is certainly talking about English history. The moral of the painting, however, is not necessarily very comforting to the institution it depicts. History, it says, is not heritage. History teaches us that change will come; English history teaches us that authority comes from the people. At a point when Britain is on the verge of breaking up, Festing has gone back to a time before the Union. At a point when the abolition of the House of Lords is seemingly upon us, he has celebrated the defeat of the hereditary principle. His painting is not quite a statement of republicanism, but it is a strong affirmation of parliamentary democracy.

It seems surprising to find such an uncompromising argument in a semi- official portrait. But, as Francis Bacon long ago said, one of the reasons we flatter princes is to teach them how they should behave. And English portraiture has a long history of masterpieces painted in a spirit of near-satire to expose the pretensions of a sitter. Stubbs painted Lady Lade, the Prince Regent's friend, in military pose on a heroic rearing horse to suggest what a terrifying jade she was. Reynolds picked a famously inappropriate classical role for Lady Sarah Bunbury, sacrificing to the Graces - one greatly appreciated by his contemporaries, who knew that her favoured occupations were really eating beefsteak and playing cricket at Brighton.

Festing's portrait looks like flattery but is full of a desire to instruct its audience and its subject. It looks like colourful heritage-industry flummery but finds relevant meaning for us in our own history. I don't know whether he intends all the meanings so clearly present in his portrait. He has been quoted, in fact, as denying at least some of them, saying that "there is no intention to link Charles I and the Queen". I can't help feeling that he is being a little disingenuous here. But whatever his real intentions, an important statement is being made here about the future of our political institutions and a substantial reminder that, like the art of portraiture, our history - Chelsea Pensioners, the monarch, the constitution and the Civil War - is only trivial when we are determined to find it so.