Ten great portraits of Queens

6 June 2012

Elizabeth II. Photo: Royal Collection.

Did you all enjoy the Jubilee long weekend? I thought it was all ace and it made me feel very patriotic and imbued with an unusual degree of love for my fellow country people. I’m basically keen on anything that involves either the Red Arrows or Prince Harry so a combination of both is pretty amazing in my opinion.

I originally planned a post based on my grandfather’s reminiscing about the original Coronation day, which he took part in as one of the Scots Guards lining the processional route but he declared the whole thing ‘boring’ and ranted about medals and stuff so I decided not to share that with you all. Instead, here’s a post about the TEN GREATEST PORTRAITS OF ENGLISH QUEENS. In my opinion, which as we all know, means very little at all.

Elizabeth Woodville, Unknown Artist, c 1471. Photo: Queen’s College, Cambridge.

1. Elizabeth Woodville. Allegedly one of the most beautiful women in England – her exquisite fine boned beauty can be easily discerned from this portrait, which dates from around 1470 when Elizabeth was in her early thirties. This isn’t simpering Disney princess prettiness though as there’s more than a hint of IRON FISTED ruthlessness behind that serenely direct gaze.

Jane Seymour, Hans Holbein, 1536. Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

2. Jane Seymour. In contrast to her husband’s ravishing grandmother, Elizabeth Woodville, Jane Seymour, another royal bride drawn from relatively common stock, was not exactly a looker. Or at least not according to Holbein anyway. We can only presume that she must have had a winning personality or something. No one really seems sure what to make of Jane Seymour, do they? I really like the way Hilary Mantel describes her in her books – it’s an excellent antidote to the simpering blonde of most popular fiction. Was she the half witted pawn of Cromwell and her male relatives or was she an arch schemer in her own right?

Catherine Parr, attributed to Master John, c 1545. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

3. Catherine Parr. As everyone knows, this portrait was believed for many years to depict Lady Jane Grey but has recently been re-identified as a painting of Catherine Parr. Whoever the sitter is, it is a fantastic depiction of a mid era Tudor queen in all her opulent, magnificent glory.

Mary I, Antonio Moro, 1554. Photo: Prado, Madrid.

4. Mary I. I’m not a great fan of Mary I, but I do really admire this portrait of her by Antonis Mor, which manages to capture both a certain bullish stubbornness as well as a sense of fragile vulnerability. ‘Love me OR I WILL KILL YOU,’ she seems to say. Or maybe not. Either way, Mary didn’t exactly have the greatest of lives and I was actually taught to appreciate all the ‘So What Did Mary Tudor Ever Do For Us’ good points about her as part of A Level History so maybe I should cut her some slack.

Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley portrait’), Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1592. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

5. The Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth I. Not entirely unexpectedly, it’s actually pretty hard to pick just ONE awesome portrait of Elizabeth I but I opted for this one in the end (it was a close battle between this one, the Rainbow Portrait and the one of Elizabeth in her coronation robes) as it is just so completely BLOW YOUR SOCKS OFF and IN YOUR FACE amazing. It is, in fact, along with Holbein’s feet apart and codpiece thrust towards the world depiction of Henry VIII, possibly one of the greatest portraits of any English monarch ever. I mean, she’s standing on top of a map for God’s sake. We should ALL have portraits of ourselves standing on maps looking like we’d snap your neck sooner than look at you.

Henrietta Maria, Van Dyck, c 1636. Photo: San Diego Museum of Art.

6. Henrietta Maria. At this point in the proceedings, the Queens are no longer English but British, which is nice. Let’s face it, the union between Henrietta Maria and Van Dyck was one made in artistic heaven and we are told that the diminutive (less than 5′) uncrowned consort of Charles I sat for Van Dyck at least twenty five times during her reign. Opinion on Henrietta Maria’s looks seem to be somewhat divided thanks to some less than flattering descriptions of her in later life, most notably by her niece, Sophie von der Pfalz, but we are assured by contemporaries that the youthful Henrietta Maria was every bit the charming Parisian ingenue. I’m imagining something like Audrey Tatou with ringlets.

Mary of Modena, Wissing, 1676. Photo: Museum of London.

7. Queen Mary of Modena. Well, hello there. Look, I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of an EPIC Girl Crush for Mary of Modena going on and God only knows how annoyed Charles II was to see his little brother James married off to such a prodigious beauty. As you can imagine, he took all sorts of shines to her when she arrived at his court in 1673 at the age of just fifteen. Well, I say ‘just’ fifteen but that was par for the course back then.

Queen Charlotte, Gainsborough, 1781. Photo: Royal Collection.

8. Queen Charlotte. Again, not the most attractive of ladies but one whose sterling personal qualities clearly more than compensated for this so who are we to carp? For me, it was between the Zoffany painting of her sitting at her dressing table and this one by Gainsborough, which easily rivals the most spangled, poufed and flouncy depiction of her trend setting contemporary chum and very distant cousin across the Channel, Marie Antoinette. Did you know that they were great friends despite never meeting? Not that that should be considered unusual in the Age Of The Internet but even so, it warms the cockles of my heart to hear of Charlotte preparing sumptuous rooms for Marie Antoinette should she manage to escape to England during the Revolution.

Queen Victoria, Winterhalter, 1859. Photo: Royal Collection.

9. Queen Victoria. There’s a surfeit of portraits of Queen Victoria looking her most regal best, but this is the one that always stands out for me as she doesn’t just look like a queen, but she’s also IMPERIAL in her magnificence. It must be tough to be queen though as not only do you have to look the part but what if you also want to look a bit, well, pretty too? The two don’t always go hand in hand as there’s only so much one can do with ermine robes and a whopping great crown but I think Queen Victoria manages pretty well in this portrait at least. Unlike the portrait of Mary of Modena, who was after all a queen consort rather than a queen regnant, it’s not going to make anyone go ‘Cor, I so would’ but on the other hand, well, you wouldn’t want to mess with her, would you?

Elizabeth II, Sir William Dargie, 1950. Photo: Royal Collection.

10. Queen Elizabeth II. I really love the fact that although we live in The Age Of Photography, the royal family are still commissioning canvas portraits of themselves. Okay, they may not always turn out all that well but that’s part of their charm, surely? I love this one of the young Queen though – with a delightfully arch expression that makes me think of Nancy Mitford heroines and dressed in what we are told is a ‘mimosa yellow’ Norman Hartnell gown that she wore during her tour of Australia in 1954. I think it’s VERY glam and as Her Majesty has proved so often over the years, she can really rock a yellow outfit.

I have no doubt at all that you all disagree with my choices so feel free to suggest your own favourites in the comments!

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