Elizabeth II by Lucian Freud
Elizabeth I of England certainly had her fair share of unflattering portraits. But as one of the most depicted women in the world, the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, hasn’t fared particularly well either. In 2000, the long-reigning monarch agreed to be painted by the late Lucian Freud, a British painter who throughout his career has earned wide respect both at home and abroad.
While not remotely painful, the many, many sessions, spread between May 2000 and December 2001, were certainly long and drawn out. Freud felt obliged to assure Her Majesty that despite his seemingly slow progress he was actually going at 90 miles per hour, and if he went any faster he just might crash. And this was just to produce a portrait measuring just 9″ by 6″, capturing the head, the shoulders and—her universally recognisable party piece—the diadem.
It’s worth stressing here that just because it’s unflattering doesn’t necessarily make it a terrible portrait. I personally rate Lucian Freud—partly because I genuinely like his work and partly because everybody else in this country ranks him among Britain’s finest figurative painters. It might not be flattering, but it certainly captures the weariness that must come with the amount of experience Elizabeth has had during her decades in office.
Plus flattery was never one of his objectives as an artist. In fact Freud is famous for not pulling his punches when it came to depicting his subjects in a realistic light. No matter how difficult it might be to stomach, Freud saw his art as “a truth telling exercise” and saw it his role as an artist to convey this truth. If you need to see how far he was willing to go, just look at his own self-portrait below.
Freud’s work certainly divided opinion. Praise was forthcoming from The Times‘ art critic Richard Cork, who described the finished piece as, “painful, brave, honest, stoical and above all clear sighted.” The Sun and its traditionally monarchical readership gave it an ice-cold reception, however; its Royal Photographer, Arthur Edwards, calling for pitchforks at dawn in writing, “Freud should be locked in the Tower for this.” Having said that, The Sun is mainly famous for its topless “Page Three Girls”, so let’s hold judgement on what they have to say shall we.