Have you seen the new portrait of HM the Queen? It’s stunning in its horrendous, cartoonish ineptitude. Her Majesty is portrayed sitting awkwardly on a throne in a raspberry-jam-coloured frock, her tremendous bosom so awkwardly conveyed that she seems to be concealing a large handbag in its folds. Wearing an expression that combines bovinity with chronic constipation, her face isn’t the face of the Queen at all; piggy-eyed and broad-cheeked, it resembles Baroness Thatcher’s quondam foreign secretary Francis Pym, only with a smear of lipstick and a Tammy Wynette fright wig.
The painting’s most interesting feature is, or are, the hands. They’re enormous. They’re also reddened and raw, as if the Queen had spent hours scrubbing her family’s clothes at a freezing watering hole. Her left hand rests on her lap like a stricken lobster while the fingers of her right play nervously with a ring – or maybe she’s struggling to take it off and throw it at the artist, Dan Llywelyn Hall.
One checks to see which benighted organisation commissioned this atrocity and discovers – hah! – it was the Welsh Rugby Union. No wonder the artist portrayed her as a barrel-chested flanker with massive hands – he wanted to suggest her affinity with the Wales First XV. The Union plans to hang Mr Hall’s work at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. So Cardiff children who visit the stadium can see their Queen as an anxious-looking, distinctly un-regal, cross-dressing wing-three-quarter.
I’m not sure of the way these things work but how, I wonder, did she respond to the finished product? Was Mr Llywelyn Hall present to turn the canvas round? Did she click on No 238 from her repertoire of Non-Committal Expressions, and say a faint “Very nice…”? The poor Queen must be exhausted by representation, after 140 official portraits in her 60 years on the throne. And we are inured to seeing her incarnated in disobliging contexts. She’s been portrayed as overwhelmed by royal robes (Terence Cuneo), as a stern Joan of Arc (Pietro Annigoni), as a veal-faced panto dame (Lucian Freud) and as a martyr with eyes painfully shut (Chris Levine.) But this week’s painting is something of a low point in royal-portrait history. Is it time we cried “Enough!”? Can we declare a moratorium on royal portraits that don’t look royal and leave the octogenarian matriarch in peace?
I confess I’m a little surprised by the vehemence of my reaction. I don’t have strong feelings about the monarchy as a Good or Bad Thing. I don’t care tuppence about the other royals. I feel positively queasy about the media infantilisation of the Duchess of Cambridge. But the Queen is different. It’s a personal thing. She and I go waayyy back. I was born just after she was crowned. I’ve been alive all through her reign, and she’s been around all through, as it were, mine. She is, in a sense, my Queen and I’m proud of the way she goes unsinkably on, as though her life has an important connection to mine. Baroness Thatcher, after years of dementia, dies at 87; the Queen, also 87, stays in rude health. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicates at 75; the Queen, 12 years older, sails majestically on in her primrose frock and matching handbag.
British commentators looked at the Dutch monarchy this week and suggested our royals might be wise to ditch the fancy ceremonial/ritual/orb-and-sceptre stuff in favour of informality, bicycles and Wranglers. This may be the way forward for British royalty – but not, I think, for the Queen. “Humankind,” wrote T S Eliot in Four Quartets, “cannot bear very much reality”. But when it comes to the royals, humankind seems to want more and more reality.
We’re led to consider the young royals as people essentially like us, only richer, luckier, smilier and better connected, dukes and princesses with the easy manner manufactured by a charm school. But I’m afraid I look at the Queen’s often exasperated, bulldog-swallowed-a-wasp expression and am far more charmed. I prefer the moments when she resembles the chronically unsmiling Queen Victoria, because then they both seem connected to that ancient mystique of monarchy, that vestigial whiff of divine right, that was such a potent myth for centuries. I’m a sucker for that cool swagger of kingship, while reserving the right to find it absurd and begging for subversion.
And now here comes a new TV history show called The Secret History of … which subjects towering historical figures to gossipy inspection, as though reporting from the TMZ online scandal sheet. They explain that Napoleon “would have been all over sexting because of his saucy battlefield letters to Josephine”, that Casanova “made reusable condoms out of boiled and cleaned sheep intestines”, and that Lord Byron (“the bad boy poet”) used to drink wine from the skull of a sheep that he found in his garden. This week, one of the programme researchers, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, went public with her speculations about how such figures might look if they lived today, complete with digital images supplied by the programme’s artists.
Here’s Henry VIII without his ornate robes, slimmed down and crammed into a suit with a white shirt and medallion, fake tan and a hair transplant. Here’s Marie Antoinette, extracted from her voluminous silks and ermines, made over with dyed auburn hair and a boob job (“because she was always teased for her small breasts”). And, perhaps most shocking, here is Queen Elizabeth I, re-invented as a skinny, angular bluestocking in a designer suit and a wintry expression.
I like this approach to history; it humanises the figures behind the Reformation, the French Revolution and the Spanish Armada, and lets us see them as real people. But can we leave the Queen alone, and stop trying to demystify her, democratise her or make her one of us? The Queen is doing fine as she is: let us stop turning her into a cartoon, a send-up or a boot-faced, constipated Welsh hooker.