Queen Elizabeth II will be like Marilyn Monroe – her image will never die

·7-min read
An image of the late Queen in a Bond Street shop-window last weekend - Getty
An image of the late Queen in a Bond Street shop-window last weekend - Getty

Even before photography and the motion picture existed, a person’s death did not mean that their image or representation simply vanished. Coins from ancient civilisations tell us – to some degree – what rulers and potentates from millennia ago looked like. Tudor and Stuart sovereigns and magnates were captured by fine (and not-so-fine) portrait painters, and we can look at them today. What we might best, perhaps, call the iconography of our past monarchs is all over our parish churches: I have seen coats of arms high up on their walls bearing the cyphers of monarchs as far back as Charles II, who died 337 years ago.

It makes one realise just how slowly we can expect the iconography of our late Queen to vanish. I suspect that because of her longevity, popularity, and how she has come to symbolise an age, that posterity may be about to do for her what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe: she will become a permanent figure in popular culture to millions yet unborn. (Something similar happened to Queen Victoria, whose image lingered on in hand-coloured prints in mahogany frames that hung in old houses for decades after she died.) The late Queen was apparently the most photographed woman in the world, and more people were familiar with her image than with anyone else’s. That legacy could hardly disappear overnight, or even within years.

In fact, the late Queen’s image may become in some ways even more apparent. A rather unsatisfactory statue of Her late Majesty was put up at Newmarket racecourse to mark her 90th birthday. Over the next few years, others will proliferate. Her image is likely to be on coins in circulation for years to come. Those of us of a certain age can recall plucking pennies out of our pockets in the 1960s with heavily-worn effigies of Queen Victoria on them, not just her veiled “old head” but her “bun” effigy, so named because of the hairstyle the monarch sported on the coins, dating to a century earlier.

Stamps bearing Elizabeth II’s likeness may turn up for the next few years, while people exhaust their stocks of them. Before long there will be stamps and coins and banknotes with Charles III on them: but his late mother will not depart suddenly in that regard. Other aspects of the iconography, however, will change.

In the months and years ahead, the previously ubiquitous presence of Elizabeth II will fade from our lives. Her world will become an island no longer joined to our particular mainland: it will be as if the bridge linking us had been destroyed, and the current were too fierce ever to go back to it. This is bound to have an effect on the tens of millions of us who, until last week, had never known life under any other monarch. It will be a sign of a long period in our country’s history having come suddenly to an end, and its traces gradually beginning to be eliminated as the new King, and a new order, establish themselves.

Queen Elizabeth II looks at stamps bearing her head in London in 1969 - PA
Queen Elizabeth II looks at stamps bearing her head in London in 1969 - PA

Every day, a few more relics will disappear from our lives. Soon, in government offices around Britain, and in British embassies around the world, portraits of the late Queen will be taken down and those of the King will replace them. (Doubtless, rather like those of Queen Victoria, some will in time turn up in antique and secondhand shops, or, as wristbands for Her late Majesty’s Lying-in-State queue did, on eBay.) Her image has, since Monday’s funeral, already vanished from electronic hoardings around the nation’s streets. Those in shop windows will, in time, follow.

The way we speak, and write, will slowly change. Since the morning after the late Queen’s death, Queen’s Counsel has become King’s Counsel, and R v Smith in the courts has meant Rex, and not Regina. The Queen’s English has become, as it was in Fowler’s day, the King’s English once more. Soon, letters from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will arrive in envelopes marked “On His Majesty’s Service”. His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State will request and require, in our passports, that the usual courtesies are extended to His subjects.

The cypher on the stationery of the Royal Household will change to CIIIR, as it will on any coats of arms in buildings and on vehicles. It will not be too long before the first post boxes appear with that cypher, although the country still has plenty that bear the marks of Victoria, Edward VII, George V and George VI, and of course of the late Queen herself. (There are even an estimated 130 pillar boxes bearing the cypher of Edward VIII.) In the police force and the Armed Forces, the cyphers on cap badges will change: it is now all the King’s horses, and all the King’s men, once again.

Having a King inspires a sense of change, but it also has a retro air. Most of us have never known life with a King, and thoughts of one evokes men in black-and-white photographs, in uniforms or in top hats, symbolising the distant British past. It is as if we were now back in that past – only, this time, it is in colour, and updated second-by-second on the internet. Soon, there will be sentient people who cannot recall a Queen Regnant, and who on seeing her effigy on coins or her portrait in picture galleries may wonder who she was.

For everyone, whether they remember her or not, the late Queen will now irrevocably be in the past. As the months and years pass, and we see her on film in the endless royal documentaries that saturate television channels, she will lose the sense of immediacy, that literal presence, that she had when alive. She will acquire a period flavour. But precisely because she lived in an age of moving pictures, recorded sound, 24-hour news and the internet, her images will be more frequent and more accessible than those of any of her predecessors, including Victoria, her real challenger for ubiquity even more than 120 years after her death.

Workers install the first Edward VIII postbox in Ilford in 1936 - Hulton Archive
Workers install the first Edward VIII postbox in Ilford in 1936 - Hulton Archive

But then, Victoria gave her name to an age, and it must remain to be seen whether the Elizabethan Age, though longer than the Victorian, will lodge in the national consciousness in quite the same way. When we think of “Victorian”, we think of a certain code of conduct now regarded as repressive and destructive: will there ever be such a thing as an Elizabethan idea of personal conduct, when one thinks of all the social changes that have happened since 1952? Is there an identifiable Elizabethan form of dress? Or of architecture? Or of furniture and interiors (for Victoria’s was the age of antimacassars and mahogany)?

For the image of the late Queen to lodge in the memory as Victoria’s has, long after anyone who can recall the old Queen being alive has died, an identity must be created for the era, and, Warhol-style, an image of the late Sovereign will need to be established to symbolise that identity: perhaps Wilding or Annigoni’s depictions, however doctored they may have been.

It is the job of cultural historians to establish the identity of any era. Yet it will be hard for them to agree in what this one have consisted. There have, it seems, been several different “Elizabethan ages” since 1952, as society and values changed so rapidly: the stuffy 1950s, the swinging 1960s, the decaying 1970s, the Thatcherite 1980s, and so on. The late Queen will not go easily, as all these memorials in stone and on paper – there will be an official biography, and doubtless many unofficial ones – are devised for her. The sheer epic sense of 70 years, combined with the love and regard felt for her, will have made her one of the least forgettable figures in the history of the world.