Behind her eyes: celebrating the Queen as a cultural icon

·15-min read

Over the decades of her reign, the Queen has shown herself to be as remarkable away from the limelight as she is in the full glare of the public gaze. Nine figures with an insight into her life reveal what makes our monarch such an extraordinary and inspiring figurehead.

The enigmatic sovereign

By Chris Levine, artist

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

In 2004, it had been 800 years since the island of Jersey broke away from France and pledged allegiance to the Crown, and they wanted to mark that relationship with a contemporary portrait. When I got the phone call about it, I thought: “Why me?” It really was daunting because I wanted to create something worthy.

If I was going to take on the commission, I wanted to instil into it something iconic. Creatively, I was given complete agency. I got to style the Queen, which I did with her PA Angela Kelly, and chose a single line of pearls, a selection of capes and the Diadem Crown, which is beautiful and understated, with a simple cross.

The appointment had been in my diary for three years, and when the big moment arrived it was surreal. The Queen came into the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace wearing the dress I had picked out, and I almost had to pinch myself. Angela Kelly brought the crown in a large jewellery box; you might think putting it on would be a big ceremonial affair, but they just did it in front of the mirror. I had been briefed on how to address the Queen – “Ma’am”, not “Marm” – and to shake her hand as she put hers out. She was very composed and observant, rather than reactive. She looked at me and didn’t give anything away.

I had some incense burning in the room because I wanted to create an ambience of calm. I used a camera that takes eight seconds and shoots 200 frames, so I stood next to her to time it with her breathing. I wanted to capture a sense of exhalation and stillness; to see her as a human, rather than be distracted by the fact that she is the Queen. I spoke with her about meditation practices, and learnt that hers is gardening, which I thought was quite beautiful.

The resulting portraits have really resonated with people. In 2012, the National Portrait Gallery opened its show of 16 of the most powerful images ever made of the Queen (including those by Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol and Pietro Annigoni) with Equanimity, and closed it with Lightness of Being. Equanimity was the official portrait, showing the Queen with her eyes open, looking straight ahead. Its title reflects how she manages to stay composed, despite all the demands made of her. I asked her how she felt about the title of
the work, and she said she thought it was appropriate.

The second is Lightness of Being (pictured above), where her eyes are closed. This was actually an outtake, and I think the reason it has touched so many people is because it has a spiritual dimension. Some people who are not necessarily royalists have collected versions of Lightness of Being, and now there are editions hanging on different walls all over the world. There’s something about it that you just connect with – it has a certain serenity. I think if a work of art can give you a moment of peace, then viewers naturally respond to it.

The orderly thinker

By Helen Mirren, actress

Photo credit: Pathe/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Pathe/Kobal/Shutterstock

There was one thing I learnt about the Queen that I put into the film, which I got from the book by Crawfie, her nanny. She had been the nanny for Elizabeth and Margaret until they were about 17 years old, so she knew them really well. The Queen always loved horses, and she had these little toy horses, and Crawfie said she would get up in the middle of the night and arrange them very neatly, so they were all in a row. She said sometimes in the night she’d get up and check that they were still neatly arranged, that their little feet were still in a straight line. And there was a moment [in The Queen] when she’s on the phone to Tony Blair and she’s got some pens, and I said: “I want a shot of her arranging these pens very neatly, equally distanced and exactly lined up.” And it was a tiny detail that the audience will never really know, but you know, and when as a character you walk onto the set, you feel: “This is where I live, this is mine.”

The equine enthusiast

By Clare Balding, broadcaster

Photo credit: Mirrorpix
Photo credit: Mirrorpix

When I was small, the Queen gave my brother and me a Shetland pony called Valkyrie, which we learnt to ride on. My father used to train some of her racehorses, and when she’d come to visit them at our yard, there would be a line-up of several gleaming thoroughbreds, and at the end, little portly Valkyrie. Her Majesty was always so thrilled to see her. While she is passionate and exceptionally knowledgeable about racing, her love of horses isn’t just about sporting achievement. You can see this in her enthusiasm for Highland ponies – naughty, stocky little things. If one of hers comes top in show, they might win her a Tesco voucher or something… the prize isn’t the point.

Of course, she loves a sweepstake win, too, and the gossip of the racing world. Horses are a great equaliser – a horse isn’t going to behave itself around her because she’s a monarch, and I think she enjoys that. It says quite a lot that some of the Jubilee celebrations have been arranged to give the Queen time to return from Epsom that evening. Whatever the commemorations are, watching the Derby is non-negotiable.


The beneficent matriarch

By Joanna Lumley, actress and author of ‘A Queen for All Seasons’

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

One summer evening, I was too late for a Royal Academy event attended by the Queen because of catastrophic traffic in London. I leapt from my taxi and raced down Piccadilly, only to see the royal car slowly pulling out from the Royal Academy. “Oh!” I screeched and dropped a curtsey where I stood on the pavement. The Queen looked out of the car window, our eyes met and she gave me the dearest, warmest smile. I love the way she notices things about the outside world; when we imagine that we are staring at her, she is looking back and watching what goes on.

She made a promise when she was only 21 years old to devote her life to the service of her people, and she has never wavered. I don’t think I could have made such a vow at 21 and been true to it for evermore. I think people see her as a mothership, the mater familias, the bedrock; everything she does is measured, kindly, reassuring – in fact, everything we long for in a happy family life. I believe she sees us all as extended members of her family and loves us very much.

Most people can only ever remember the Queen on the throne, and she will go down in history as the longest-reigning British monarch. But I think we shall treasure her most for being so unutterably special. We are lucky to have her as an inspiration and – in a weird way – as a true friend.


The corgi whisperer

By Roger Mugford, animal psychologist and trainer of the Queen’s dogs

Photo credit: Bettmann
Photo credit: Bettmann

The Queen absolutely adores her corgis. At the time I knew her, in the mid-1980s, she had nine, two of which were dorgis that appeared from her sister Margaret and became part of the Queen’s group. As Prince Philip gently pointed out, it was perhaps too many – but she was very good at managing them. She takes enormous pride in their health, and personally supervised the feeding, which she demonstrated for me by having somebody come in with a whopping-great tray of bowls. They were all individual battered household pots and pieces of silverware, each containing a unique supper of various home-made concoctions, some with homeopathic additions. Imagine nine little dogs all sitting in a semicircle waiting to have their bowl of food placed before them, following their mistress’ commands to “sit” or “stay”! This is a woman who exerts imperious control, but with a very loving and personalised approach.

The consummate hostess

By Tom Parker Bowles, food writer and critic

Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: WPA Pool - Getty Images

Everything I’ve learnt about the Queen’s preferences is from Mark Flanagan, the
personal chef to the Queen. She likes seasonal ingredients – asparagus, lamb – and food from the estate, such as grouse or venison from Balmoral. She’ll have pheasants from Sandringham (in season from October to February), and she even has her own cheese made using milk from the cows at the royal dairy in Windsor.

When it comes to banquets, all the menus are traditionally written in French, even if they’re describing English dishes; that’s just the way it’s done. Happily, the Queen speaks flawless French, and she has the most incredible memory, so she remembers what every single guest likes and doesn’t like. She’s intricately involved in what’s on each menu, which is important if you’re hosting the president of France or Japan.

Her Majesty The Queen: The Official Platinum Jubilee Pageant Commemorative Album’, with contributions from Tom Parker Bowles (£49.95, St James’s House), is out now.

The eternal muse

By Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

From the iconic paintings of the Plantagenets and Tudors to the early photographs
of Queen Victoria and her family, images of monarchs have always been hugely popular with visitors to the National Portrait Gallery. While many are familiar with our most famous faces, there is only one person who can claim to be not just the most represented royal, but also the most represented person in history: Her Majesty the Queen.

Our earliest portrait of the Queen shows her in May 1926, barely a month old, on her mother’s lap. Elizabeth II’s coronation was the first to be televised and broadcast internationally, and our photographs by Cecil Beaton are an evocative celebration of that historic day. Countless artists have interpreted her likeness, from Pietro Annigoni’s monumental painting commissioned in 1969 to Andy Warhol’s colourful Reigning Queens (1985) and Annie Leibovitz’s ethereal depiction of Her Majesty at 90, walking with her corgis – now icons themselves.

The Queen has lived and reigned through a period of extraordinary change, and with that change has come the evolution of portraiture. While the monarchs of old were drawn and painted, our Queen’s likeness has developed with the advancement of photography. In 2012, she was even depicted in hologram form. While the official images of Her Majesty show a leader dressed in robes of state, other photographs of her at home with family provide a fascinating insight into royal life, including those unseen moments of rest and quiet, as captured so beautifully by Chris Levine. No icon has influenced artists quite as much as the Queen because, ultimately, she represents so much more than herself.

The style setter

By Gerald Bodmer, CEO of Launer London

Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images

When the Queen ascended to the throne, I was still a young man, in my twenties and in the Royal Air Force. I could never have imagined that, 70 years later, I would be her handbag designer of choice. Her Majesty likes a classical bag – you’re not going to be a rock chick if you’re the Queen. We make them a little lighter for her to carry now, at her request: practicality is essential, so sometimes we put a mirror or a purse inside. In person, she is always absolutely delightful – like a lady from next-door, with a very good sense of humour and a great interest in everything around her. In celebration of the Jubilee, we are reviving a handbag she carried in the 1970s. I hope it will reflect the Queen herself: classical, elegant, one of a kind.

Our steadfast hope

By Amanda Foreman, author and historian

Photo credit: Pool/Tim Graham Picture Library - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool/Tim Graham Picture Library - Getty Images

If you’ve ever had a dream involving the Queen, you are not alone. After her Silver Jubilee in 1977, it was estimated that more than a third of Britons had dreamt about her at least once, with even ardent republicans confessing to receiving royal visits in their slumbers. For the past 70 years, the Queen has been more than just a presence in our lives, subconscious or otherwise; she has been a source of fascination, inspiration and national pride.

When Princess Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, the country was still struggling to emerge from the shadow of World War II. Her youth offered a break with the past. Time magazine in the United States named her its ‘Woman of the Year’, not because of anything she had achieved but because of the hope she represented for Britain’s future. A barrister and political hopeful named Margaret Thatcher wrote in the Sunday Graphic that having a queen ought to remove “the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places”. After all, Elizabeth II was a wife and mother of two small children, and yet no one was suggesting that family life made her unfit to rule.

Thatcher’s optimism belied the Queen’s dilemma over how to craft her identity as a modern monarch in a traditional role. At the beginning, tradition seemed to have the upper hand: a bagpiper played beneath her window every morning (a holdover from Queen Victoria). The Queen knew she didn’t want to be defined by the past. “Some people have expressed the hope that my reign may mark a new Elizabethan age,” she stated in 1953. “Frankly, I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forbear.”

Nevertheless, the historical parallels between the two queens are instructive. Elizabeth I created a public persona, yet made it authentic. Fakery was impossible, since “we princes,” she observed, “are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world.” Although Elizabeth I was a consummate performer, her actions were grounded in sincere belief. She began her reign by turning her coronation into a great public event. Observers were shocked by her willingness to interact with the crowds, but the celebrations laid the foundation for a new relationship between the queen and her subjects.

The introduction of television cameras for Elizabeth II’s coronation performed a similar function. In the 1860s, the journalist Walter Bagehot observed that society itself is a kind of “theatrical show” where “the climax of the play is the Queen”. The 1953 broadcast enabled 27 million Britons and 55 million Americans to participate in the ‘show’ from the comfort of their homes. It was a new kind of intimacy that demanded more from Elizabeth II than any previous monarch.

The Queen had resisted being filmed, but having been convinced by Prince Philip of its necessity, she worked to master the medium. She practised reading off a teleprompter so that her 1957 Christmas speech, the first to be telecast, would appear warm and natural. Harking back to Elizabeth I, she admitted: “I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do some­thing else, I can give you my heart and my devotion.” She vowed to fight for “fundamental principles” while not being “afraid of the future”.

In practice, embracing the future could be as groundbreaking as instituting the royal “walkabout”, or as subtle as adjusting her hemline to rest at the knee. Indeed, establishing her own sense of fashion was one of the first successes of Elizabeth II’s reign. Its essence was pure glamour, but the designs were performing a double duty: nothing could be too patterned, too hot, too shiny or too sheer, or else it wouldn’t photograph well. Her wardrobe carried the subversive message that dresses should be made to work for the wearer, not the other way round. In an era when female celebrity was becoming increasingly tied to “sexiness”, the Queen offered a different kind of confident femininity. Never afraid to wear bright blocks of colour, she has encouraged generations of women to think beyond merely blending in.

The opportunity to demonstrate her “fund­amental principles” on the international stage came in 1961, during a Cold War crisis involving Ghana. The Queen was due to go on a state visit, until growing violence there led to calls for it to be cancelled. She not only insisted on keeping the engage­ment, but during the wildly popular trip, she also made a point of dancing with President Kwame Nkrumah at a state ball. Her adept handling of the situation helped to prevent Ghana from switching allegiance to the Soviet Union. Just as important, though, was the coverage given to her rejection of contemporary racism. As Harold Macmillan noted: “She loves her duty and means to be Queen and not a puppet.” This determination has seen her through 14 prime ministers, 14 US presidents, seven popes and 265 official overseas visits.

Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images
Photo credit: Samir Hussein - Getty Images

At the beginning of the Covid epidemic in 2020, with the nation in shock at the sudden cessation of ordinary life, Elizabeth II spoke directly to the country, sharing a wartime memory to remind people of what can be endured. “We will succeed,” she promised, and in that desperate moment, she united us all in hope. The uniqueness of the Queen lies in her ability to weather change with grace and equanimity – as the poet Philip Larkin once wrote: “In times when nothing stood/but worsened, or grew strange/there was one constant good:/she did not change.” That steadfast continuity, so rare in a world of permanent flux, is an endless source of inspiration for artists and writers, designers and composers, all of us.

This was originally published in the June 2022 issue of Harper's Bazaar, out now.

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