Long before the Kardashians perfected the art of the image for their own financial benefit, another family introduced the very concept for propaganda and PR purposes.
The Tudors, the most famous of all of England’s monarchs, were one of the first to realise the power of the image, and used their portraits to advance their political power across Europe in the 16th century. Henry VIII, who is infamous for having married six times and executing two of his betrothed, was instrumental in reshaping the political purpose of the portrait. They were used to arrange advantageous marriages, impress foreign monarchs and dignitaries and evoke his own God-given right to rule.
One such portrait, by German master and Henry’s official painter Hans Holbein the Younger, features in a new exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria which examines the power of official royal likenesses. The king’s steely expression in the picture is inescapable, the jewels with which he is adorned and the finery of his clothes speak to an imposing figure with ultimate power.
Ben Quilty on empathy, angry art, backlash and that Jesus photo
Read moreThe exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, takes visitors through the highs of the Tudor era, the lows of the Stuarts, all through the Georgians, the revolutionary Victorians, to the current royal family, the Windsors. It features paintings and photographs of some of the most famous royals, including Queen Victoria; Diana, Princess of Wales; King George III; and expectant parents Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.
Charlotte Bolland, senior curator of the 16th century collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where the exhibition was first shown, told Guardian Australia there are always messages, political and personal, to be gleaned from these artworks.
Queen Victoria by Alexander Bassano, 1887 (1882). Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/Bendigo Art Gallery“One of their important uses was for potential spouses who lived overseas to see their likeness before they travelled over for the wedding,” she says. “And these portraits were reproduced broadly and [allowed] the monarch’s subjects to see them and for messages to be conveyed.”
It was one of Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII – a commanding, full-body portrait that was later lost, though copies of it still exist – that radically transformed what the royal portrait could be. Until the mid-15th century, portraits didn’t look at all like their subjects, but as England embraced the Renaissance, portraiture evolved too.
Today’s British royal family largely perform ceremonial duties – a stark contrast to the days of absolute monarchy, when the king or queen’s power enabled them to form armies and redistribute land. Nevertheless, contemporary official royal portraits still contain messages, even if those messages and the style of portraits have changed. Noticeably, they have changed from very formal posed settings to a deliberately casual, “friendly” style, suggesting the royals are relatable people.
Sign up to the Art Weekly email
Read more“The royal family is very aware of the images and what they are communicating. The transformation that you see in the exhibition, especially during Queen Victoria’s reign, includes the introduction of photography, of which Victoria was an early adopter,” says Bollard.
“Photography provided a close look into royal family life, their domestic life. There was huge interest in the couple [Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, who had nine children], and with photography, people could be brought into a faux intimacy with them.”
These portraits, showing a happy, apparently perfect nuclear family, helped to shape the royal family – as opposed to just the monarch herself – as a highly visible, marketable concept. That concept continues today, especially with princes William and Harry and their respective families.
Queen Elizabeth I (The ‘Ditchley’ portrait) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c 1592. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London/Bendigo Art GalleryA highlight of the exhibition is the extraordinary 1592 Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which shows her at her full political powers replete with messages about her forgiving nature. Sir Henry Lee, one of the queen’s longtime supporters and the man who commissioned the painting, had displeased her by living with his mistress. The queen eventually forgave his indiscretion, shown in the painting by the grey clouds in the background parting to reveal sunshine, and by her feet being placed on a world globe with her toes very deliberately pointing to Oxfordshire, where Sir Henry lived. There are also several Latin inscriptions that run with this theme, such as “she gives and does not expect” and “she can but does not take revenge”.
Bolland believes it’s the first time the enormous portrait has visited Australia, and says it was a significant logistical challenge to bring halfway across the world.
More recent portraits include Annie Leibovitz’s 2008 photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, depicting the monarch at her majestic best, complete with crown jewels and a tiara. But instead of attending a formal function, the Queen is sitting on her own, in the shadows, looking out the window to a garden. It’s both peaceful and dramatic, highlighting the queen’s dual nature – her duty as monarch, and her personal love of a simple life.
Bollard says that even though most of us are so familiar with what the queen and her family looks like, there’s a still a special kind of magic that artists bring out in a person. “The royal portraits today still become part of our cultural landscape.”
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.