The trials and tribulations of being a late 20th-century royal portraitist

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Portraits of the powerful are always revealing, if not because of the images they contain, then for the reaction they provoke in those who view them. The unveiling of a recent portrait of the Queen provides a good case in point. The picture shows an elderly but dignified woman, with age-battered hands (has she been biting those nails?) and an expression of contemplative melancholy. It is very far from unsympathetic but it is decidedly unregal and, for royalist critics, it has had much the same effect as poking a stick into a wasps' nest.

Brian Sewell (foppus petulans) put his elegant, unchewed finger on the central problem when he protested that the Queen resembles "a pensioner about to lose her bungalow". He was indignant about this but, though this is a bathetic description of the Queen in her present travails, it is not, surely, an entirely inaccurate one. The analogy has some force. She is getting old and she can't be sure that she will pass on to her children what she now possesses by right. For the artist, and even for some royalist portrait-viewers (Bill Deedes in the Telegraph, for example), this was to be counted in the picture's favour. It is a plea for sympathy, a reminder that the monarch is a woman too and might, indeed, have sentiments in common with a pensioner in a bungalow.

For both Brian Sewell and Lord St John of Fawsley (foppus obsequiosus), this misses the point of royal portraiture, which is not to paint the private person at all, but instead the strange amalgam of individual and institution which makes up a monarch. More than that, to paint out the details that might interrupt our sense of majesty. "The Queen is not an ordinary woman," says Sewell firmly, "not one of us," which (taken out of context like this) has a certain revealing harshness to it. Sympathy for a monarch is one thing, fellow-feeling quite another. Lord St John, the Malvolio of Emmanuel College, is more unctuous: "It hasn't got the essence of the Queen, which is a serenity, benevolence and a happiness."

Come again? These might be qualities he would wish for the monarch but, by her own confession, they have been a bit thin on the ground recently. So, if the picture is a portrait horribilis, there may be perfectly good reasons for that. Intriguingly, the Queen appears to be wearing a cloak rather similar to that which she sports in Annigoni's shamelessly flattering depiction of a regal figurehead - as if Anthony Williams wished to refer back to that reverent image and show us how far we had come.

This isn't the only recent fuss over the depiction of the powerful. When RB Kitaj's recent portrait of President Clinton was unveiled at University College there was, according to some reports, a stunned two-second silence. We should take this with a pinch of salt, I think - unveilings traditionally demand a moment of contemplation and two seconds hardly sounds excessive. But looking at the image, you could see that the assembled dignitaries might have had trouble working out what to say next. The artist, granted an hour's sketching time in the Oval Office, appeared to have decided on a rather old-fashioned kind of portrait - an image of power and determination rather than a revelation of inner character. The result was genuinely startling - something like Desperate Dan after one of Aunt Aggie's hated make-overs - but I don't think there's any doubting the sincerity of its attempt at respect. Kitaj voted for Clinton and wrote rather touchingly of his excitement at being in his presence. The result might have looked like a caricature but it was one with obedient rather than insurrectionary motives.

Both pictures demonstrate the uneasy dilemma that faces any good artist painting a portrait of someone with power. It is essentially a problem of divided fidelity - is the artist to be true to Queen and country, or true to life? For Holbein, I doubt if this was quite such a difficult opposition, if it arose at all. Even though it is now conventional to read his portrait of Henry VIII as a covert revelation of brutal state power, it's unlikely that he consciously took the risk at the time. Tastes change in faces as they do in clothes and this massive figure, with his broad, resolute features, probably gave the client exactly what he wanted, an idealised vision of unassailable vigour. He is his own bodyguard, a bouncer planted before the throne.

For a modern painter, though, truth has come to be associated with weakness and vulnerability, with the scrupulous evasion of vanity. Honesty trades in the currency of what we would rather not confess. The ascendancy of psychological recognition as the final arbiter of artistic truth effectively means that a portrait which does not bring the great down to our level is in danger of being perceived either as a failure or a fraud. "They were like that!" exclaimed Anthony Williams, defending those controversial hands in this paper. In other words, he owed his loyalty to his art, not to his monarch.

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