6 of the Most Iconic Portraits of the Late Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom

On September 8, 2022, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. She died peacefully at Balmoral in Scotland, having spent much of the summer at her beloved country estate.

Following a 70-year reign, the longest of any British sovereign, the Queen died at the age of 96 with her close family at her side. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign spanned 15 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill, and ending with Liz Truss, who the Queen met with and invited to form a government just two days before her death.

Throughout her reign, art put a public face to a private life, the Queen depicted in paintings, novels, plays, and even love songs. From Cecil Beaton to Andy Warhol, we look at six of the most iconic portraits of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

1. Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation Day — Cecil Beaton (1953)

Adorned in the full regalia of the Imperial State Crown, the newly coronated Queen of the British Empire sits on her throne, dressed in her golden coronation gown, and draped in velvet and ermine, holding the golden scepter and orb. In the background, Beaton ramps up the theatrical sense of history with his depiction of Westminster Abbey’s Gothic Lady Chapel. Deliberately ostentatious, the portrait aimed to improve morale in a post-war Britain with enchantment and opulence, at the same time portraying a young Queen bearing the weight of not just the ceremonial garb, but her newly acquired position as sovereign of the United Kingdom.

2. Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Regent — Pietro Annigoni (1955)

When Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne to the British Empire, the world was a completely different place. Pietro Annigoni’s depiction of the British monarch has a composition suggestive of Renaissance portraiture, the young Elizabeth appearing meditative against the backdrop of a desolate, frigid landscape. At the time, the painting was criticized for its focus on her role of monarch rather than portraying her human side. Nevertheless, Annigoni’s portrait is widely recognized today for cementing the young queen’s authority, positioning her within a visual legacy that dates back hundreds of years.

3. Her Majesty the Queen on Worcran — Susan Crawford (1977)

Celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s love of horses, the portrait by Scottish-born Susan Crawford depicted the sovereign riding a former racehorse that belonged to the Queen Mother. A leading equestrian artist, Susan Crawford studied not just the horse’s physique, but the bond between horse and rider, depicting the Queen in a classic tweed jacket and jodhpurs, the whisper of a smile ghosting across her lips. The painting also encapsulates the spirited Worcran, tail outstretched, and ears pricked, as they stride through the fields above Windsor Castle.

4. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom — Andy Warhol (1985)

This portrait forms part of Warhol’s Reigning Queens 1985 portfolio, a collection of 16 prints comprising four images each of four reigning queens — Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Warhol’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth was based on a photograph taken for her Silver Jubilee in 1977 and is made using the characteristic silkscreen technique Warhol frequently employed in his paintings and prints.

5. Portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II — Andrew Festing (1999)

In this evocative painting currently displayed in the Royal Hospital Chelsea Museum, the Queen is adorned in her formal garb, ready for the state opening of Parliament. She stands resplendent in an intricately embellished white gown, light from a nearby window illuminating her face, which betrays the trace of a smile. Behind the Queen stand two Chelsea Pensioners, veterans residing at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. In the background is a portrait of King Charles I and his family, the Queen’s predecessors.

6. Lightness of Being — Chris Levine (2004)

This striking portrait of a mature Queen dressed in full ceremonial attire unusually depicts Queen Elizabeth with her eyes closed, her face seemingly radiating white light. According to Levine, the striking portrait came about quite by happenstance during a sitting at Buckingham Palace. Levine used a high-resolution digital lenticular camera during the session, which captures around 200 shots as it moves on a 360-degree track around the sitter. While the official portrait he was commissioned to paint by the Jersey Heritage Trust depicts Queen Elizabeth with her eyes open, Chris Levine later discovered he had captured her in a moment of tranquility. He felt compelled to repurpose this chance image in a variety of different forms, including a version incorporating 1,100 white diamonds in anticipation of the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Conclusion

Over the course of her lifetime, Queen Elizabeth II was painted thousands of times. Unlike the first Queen Elizabeth, who went as far as introducing legislation prohibiting unflattering portraits, Queen Elizabeth II embraced the challenge of being depicted by contemporary artists. With almost 1,000 official portraits in total, Queen Elizabeth II is one of the most painted monarchs in history. Her paintings not only depict a person with an unflinching sense of duty, they also reveal how over the years she repeatedly embraced change, experimentation, and new ideas, sitting for a wide range of artists and receiving each with good grace.

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Julio Herrera Velutini

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