13 Controversial royal portraits and the stories behind them

BY Mandi Goodier

1st Jan 2015 Life

13 Controversial royal portraits and the stories behind them

The Queen sits for four portraits every year but not everyone sets out to flatter the monarchy, the paintings don't always go to plan, and sometimes the public just don't 'get it'. Find out the stories behind the most controversial portraits.

The painting that revealed too much

Lucian Freud's portrait of Queen Elizabeth

The Queen by Lucian Freud

The late Lucian Freud is a well-respected British painter, one of the greatest of his time. His portraits aren't necessarily known to flatter, rather they present a stark naturalism that is often heavy with expression and folds and severe shading. 

For something that is only 9" by 6" in size, it's a very intense painting. The Queen sat for Freud in 2000 in what was described as a bold move by the painter. Freud himself was not entirely happy with the finished piece claiming that he needed more time with his subject. 

Critics were torn over this image with comments ranging from "extremely unflattering" (Daily Telegraph), "a travesty" (The Sun), to "painful, brave, honest, stoical and, above all, clear-sighted" (The Times). The Independent claimed it to be the most honest representation of the monarch to date. 

Whatever you think of this one, Freud made no compromises when it came to sticking to his renowned style. If you think this is unflattering, you should take a look at his self-portrait.



The painting that went pop

Queen Elizabeth by Andy Warhol

Reigning Queens by Andy Warhol

Warhol was certainly no stranger to reproducing images of celebrities. The artist typically took existing photos (in this case from the Queen's silver jubilee) and used a screen printing method to add his own flare. This particular method of painting meant that it was quite possible to produce several variations of the same image.

This portrait breaks with the traditional portraits of the Queen, placing her in a contemporary pop art setting, granting her a status as popular icon rather than esteemed monarch. It was a part of a series of portraits made by Warhol in 1977 called Reigning Queens which included four Queens from around the world.

The fame-obsessed Warhol once stated: “I want to be as famous as the Queen of England.” 

In a bizarre turn of events, the Queen actually owns four of the prints and they are now a part of the Royal Collection, showing that maybe Her Majesty's tastes aren't entirely conservative.



The painting that looked more Alan Partridge

Prince William by Dan Llewelyn Hall

Fatherhood by Dan Llewellyn Hall

It's not the first time that a Llewellyn Hall painting has caused bother. He had previously painted a portrait of the Queen which had the press up in arms, likening it to the Queen's Spitting Image puppet rather than Her Majesty.

This rather ruddy representation of Prince William was unveiled one year later in 2014 and it wasn't received well at all. Art Review simply claimed that it was "terrible", while the mainstream media compared the likeness to Alan Partridge. We think there's a hint of the Jamie Oliver in there too.

But Llewellyn Hall was not phased by the critics. He said of the painting, "Fatherhood is a portrait about a universal theme: the concerns, hopes and aspirations of a family man," and of the critics, "Well I'm with Oscar Wilde on this, I would say it's the role of the artist to educate the critic and the role of the critic to educate the public.

"So for me it's just a matter of rolling with the punches."



The photo that was more Royale Family

Queen's family selfie

The Royal Selfie by Alison Jackson

Stepping away from the canvas completely, Jackson's portrait is more Royale Family than royal family. It captures something completely human but don't be fooled, this isn't Her Majesty et al, these are all look-a-likes. When you look closely it's pretty obvious, but at a glance, it works.

This isn't exactly an art piece, though, commissioned by Not On The Highstreet for a Mother's Day advertising campaign, but we thought we'd stick it in the list as it certainly breaks with tradition and normalises the monarchy, although we're fairly certain the real Queen would not like to be portrayed in this light.



The painting that was off with her head

Queen Elizabeth by Justin Mortimer

The Queen by Justin Mortimer

The Royal Society of Artists (RSA) commissioned Mortimer to paint a portrait of the Queen in 1997. The artist was 27 at the time and says he "wanted to get away from the royal aspect and paint a picture of a person rather than the Queen.

"It means people can focus more on the abstract quality of the painting and get away from the normal paintings of royalty, where everything is intact."

But the painting was met with some harsh reviews, on a base level many mainstream media outlets failed to get past the decapitated head. The Daily Mail ran with the headline: Silly artist cuts off Queen's head. 

Others looked a little deeper, stating that the fractured image represents the fractured image of the monarchy in the modern age. 

Of the fractured nature of the portrait, Mortimer says he was keen to get the Queen away from her usual royal pose—hands clasped across lap—he wanted to create a sense of movement and, being a republican, step away from the facade of the monarchy. Although he recognises the Queen as "serene and dignified", he identified her as removed from her subjects.

"My experience of the Queen is that we are here in the world and she is away from us in the palace. She is at this great distance from us. And if her uncle hadn't abdicated she would now be a horse-trainer in Sandringham or something." And this is perhaps the reason that her head is so high above her grounded body. 



The painting that's a bit what the...?!

Prince Phillip by Stuart Pearson Wright

Homo sapiens, Lepidum sativum and Calliphora vomitoria by Stuart Pearson Wright

Believe it or not, Prince Philip actually sat for this portrait, but he did not bare his torso, nor did he bring his own sprouting watercress and bluebottle. Stuart Pearson Wright is the artist responsible for this bizarre painting.

Prince Phillip sat for four one-hour sessions but refused any more. It seemed the relationship between artist and subject were rather frayed from the offset. At the end of the first sitting the Duke of Edinburgh exclaimed "godzooks!" From there the relationship tumbled.

Interestingly, Pearson Wright was selected by Prince Philip in the first place. At the time Pearson Wright was eager to capture nude images of his subjects, to show them completely vulnerable, but of course, the duke would not have been keen to be viewed in the buff.

This head and shoulders version isn't actually the original painting, the original is full length but neither the RSA, who commissioned the piece, nor Pearson Wright cares to discuss it. 

As for the bluebottle and the cress... The bluebottle comes from the vanitas tradition in painting of including a telling detail (such as a worm eaten apple or falling rose) as a reminder that all flesh is grass. In Pearson Wright's words, the cress is "A metaphor for his role as seed-bearer to the royal household, each seed/plant representing one of the four heirs to the throne which he has provided."

Needless to say, the duke hated it, but perhaps not as much as Pearson Wright.


The painting where Harry looks like Anne Robinson

Prince Harry by Elizabeth Peyton

Prince Harry by Elizabeth Peyton

This painting is part of a series young prince Harry after his mother's death.

Many felt the red lips of the pre-adolescent prince made him look a little girly. But the combination of innocence and striking lips is somewhat thematic throughout Peyton's paintings.

In a Warhol-esque manner, Peyton takes her subjects, typically popular icons past and present, and paints them from photographs and newspaper clippings.

Often the images are idealised and romanticised. Images of Sid Vicious and Pete Doherty, notorious for their rock 'n' roll lifestyle, are perceived as fresh faced with ruddy lips, almost as perceived through the eyes of a teenager.



The painting that's a bit Cabbage Patch

George Condo's Cabbage Patch Queen

Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen by George Condo

Ah, the 'Cabbage Patch Queen', a part of a series of nine portraits entitled Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen, all of which are pretty unconventional. 

This work was obviously slammed in the media as being "Disrespectful", the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, fumed: "This is embarrassingly bad."

However, Condo's surreal, grotesque and witty portraits are somewhat of a trademark meant to be viewed with a touch of humour. He states, "When I go and see great paintings, a smile comes on to my face, whether it is a Rubens or a Picasso, and I'm hoping that's the same kind of smile that people have when they look at these works," adding "I suppose it is a bit like a caricature or Cabbage Patch doll - but people like Cabbage Patch dolls."

When the Hayward Gallery hosted a retrospective, the gallery's director agreed, "there are a lot of people who feel that serious art can't be humorous," he said. "These are people who don't understand what tragicomedy is."



The disturbing painting that disappeared

Queen Elizabeth by Rolf Harris

The Queen by Rolf Harris

Even when this portrait was painted it was met with a luke-warm reception, many criticising the toothy grin, critics questioning the integrity of the so-called artist. But the public seemed to be in favour due to the then popularity of the light entertainer come painter, Rolf Harris.

The revelation of Harris as a paedophile came as a huge shock to the nation, how could someone so present in popular culture for the past five decades be hiding such a hideous secret: why didn't anyone know?

Once this initial shock had passed and he'd been arrested, our thoughts could only turn to what this meant for his imprint on popular culture—after all, we'd sung his songs, mimicked his catchphrase "Can you guess what it is yet?", and even given him access to the highest profile woman in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth: the Queen.

That's right, as part of a documentary celebrating the Queen's 80th, Her Majesty sat twice for Harris. But what happened to that painting?

The truth is no one knows. The two most likely owners are the BBC who commissioned the piece, and the Walker Gallery who housed a part of Harris's collection. But both deny knowledge of its whereabouts. It is also likely that it's at the home of the disgraced celebrity but Harris's former PR refused to comment. 

Although there were collectors of Harris's art, it was never met with critical acclaim or even valued highly—many seeing him as a TV personality first. But his work began to rise in value after painting the Queen as he suddenly became a little more credible. 

But the big question surrounding his art, and in particular this piece, is this: should it be blotted from history or should it be looked upon in a whole new light—a haunting image and a warning for future generations?



The painting that was unflattering

Kate Middleton by Paul Emsley

Portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge by Paul Emsley

This is the first official portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. It follows a traditional style and perhaps seems a little old fashioned—but that is not where the controversy surrounding this image begins.

Many critics saw the portrait as unflattering, The Independent described it as "catastrophic". The main consensus of negativity came down to this: why has the artist aged the Duchess? Middleton has a reputation as a style icon, a warm character, and beautiful woman yet this image seems to lack any of that for which the public love her.

However, against the backlash, and making a poignant point, Scotsman arts editor Andrew Eaton-Lewis suggested that "there's something troubling about the fact that the case against this painting is essentially that it makes a pretty young woman look less pretty and less young."

The Duchess herself loved the portrait saying "I thought it was brilliant. It's just amazing. Absolutely brilliant". She particularly praised the nose and mouth.

As for Emsley, well aware that his reputation was at stake, he responded to the critics asking whether they could draw. In his own personal statement about his broader work Emsley claims that he likes to "emphasise the singularity and silence of the form" and that he places focus on "the way in which light and shade fall across the subject. By creating a settled half-light I try to transform the existence of the object from the ordinary to something more profound".



The painting that was a perplexing gift

Queen receives portrait gift from Germany

Childhood Queen and her father George VI by Nicole Leidenfrost

In 2015 the Queen was left feeling rather perplexed when she was given this painting as a gift on a state visit to Germany. The painting is supposed to depict her on her childhood horse with her father, George VI. When presented with the unusual gift she said "That's a funny colour for a horse"

The painting is based on a photograph, so surely the composition alone should have been enough to jog Her Majesty's memory, still, pointing to the looming figure to the left of the canvas she said, "Is that supposed to be my father?"

By all accounts the German president Joachum Gauck was unable to hide the disappointment in his voice when he replied "Don't you recognise him?" to which the stern response came "No".



The painting that epitomised punk

Jamie Reid God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen by Jamie Reid

It's one of the most iconic images of the last century. Jamie Reid's design for the British punk band the Sex Pistols became synonymous with punk rebellion.

Upon its release, "God Save the Queen" quickly became banned by the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority which regulated local radio stations. But that wasn't enough to stop the popularity of the song if anything it became sacred and more desirable. 

Their anti-national anthem stood for something, loaded with anger, and republican sentiment and it was certainly echoed throughout the country. It was clear that Johnny Rotton's lyrics, which placed the Queen as separate from her subjects, was felt up and down the country.

The big question was, despite the sales evidence, why was it kept off the number one spot? Rod Stewart's soppy love song "I Don't Want to Talk About It/The First Cut is the Deepest" charted at number one even though the Sex Pistols were, in fact, outselling it.

The all-time time establishment irritants weren't afraid to deface the image of the Queen and flag. Artist Jamie Reid originally produced over 100 variations, all from the official jubilee image pulled from the Sunday People. One such image included a safety pin through her mouth, another the Queen had swastika eyeballs, highlighting the German link to the royals.

A royalist representative said of the Queen's response "There's no question she was uncomfortable at being defaced, not because it was a personally offensive towards her, but because it was the sovereign being desecrated in this manner." 

The artwork itself was voted number one record artwork of all time in 2001 by Q Magazine.



The painting that was made up of Dianas

Queen Elizabeth by Kim Dong-Yoo

Elizabeth II vs Diana by Kim Dong-Yoo

This 2007 portrait appears like a cross between an oversized stamp and one of Andy Warhol's pop art screenprints. All is not as it seems, look a little more closely and you'll notice the Queen's image is actually made up of lots of smaller portraits of Dianna.

Although this piece looks a little like a Warhol-esque screen print, it isn't. Nor is it produced digitally. It was actually painted entirely by hand, each row of minute portraits takes up to four days to complete.

In 1997 the royal family came under great scrutiny after the death of Princess Dianna when the reaction to her death was perceived as cold and emotionless. The public was grieving and they couldn't bear the stoic response from the royals.

There was no doubt that the royals and their advisers had misjudged matters after her death, leaning on traditional protocol instead of showing a more human side—afterall this was the mother of two young princes.

This tragic event changed the image of the monarchy in the public eye. They were fractured by the events. It became clear that the public wanted a human monarchy more in touch with the public mood. This is exactly what Diana had represented.

This image was produced in 2007, the year the inquest into Diana. It's not entirely clear whether this was coincidence or planned. The Korean artist regularly pairs up two contrasting personalities when producing his portraits adding real tension to his work. 

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