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Capturing a queen: Images of Elizabeth II

By Nuala Calvi, for CNN
  • Queen Elizabeth II has inspired iconic portraits by artists and photographers from Cecil Beaton to Gilbert and George
  • British touring exhibition traces changing public attitudes towards the monarch
  • A sitting at Buckingham palace remains a coveted -- if daunting -- opportunity for artists

London, England (CNN) -- After almost six decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II is nothing if not an expert sitter, her features captured by artists and photographers from Pietro Annigoni and Cecil Beaton to Annie Leibovitz and Andy Warhol.

To mark her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, celebrating 60 years of her rule, the National Portrait Gallery in London is staging a touring exhibition of 60 of the most striking images of Britain's monarch, including formal painted portraits, official photographs, newspaper pictures and contemporary artwork.

The exhibition opens in Edinburgh on June 25, 2011, then travels to the National Museums of Northern Ireland and Cardiff before a final run in London from May to October 2012. It aims to trace the changing perceptions of the Queen during her reign and shifting public attitudes towards her -- from the deference of the 1950s to punk rebelliousness in the 1970s and celebrity obsession of the present day.

Early official portraits on display by the likes of Dorothy Wilding and Beaton reflect a country in love with its young, attractive monarch -- and according her the customary respect.

The early pictures cling onto the idea of royalty in a conventional way -- the Queen with a crown and sceptre, in coronation robes.
--Paul Moorhouse, exhibition curator

"The early pictures cling onto the idea of royalty in a conventional way -- the Queen with a crown and sceptre, in coronation robes," says the exhibition's curator, Paul Moorhouse. "But you see Dorothy Wilding beginning already to change that -- responding to the Queen's glamour and focusing on her clothes and style."

One particularly fetching photograph by Wilding, hand-colored by Beatrice Johnson, provides a startling reminder of why the Queen was once a celebrated beauty.

In the 1960s, as traditional family values were being questioned, the Queen presented a reassuring image of herself as a wife and mother. The 1969 TV documentary, "Royal Family," -- included in the exhibition -- showed her at home in Windsor Castle with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, and their children, and was watched by millions.

"That program gave a behind-the-scenes view of the Queen and changed the way that people saw her -- from being just a formal public figure she became a private person too," says Moorhouse. "From then on there was a greater focus on the Queen as an individual."

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The role of the monarchy in the 20th century was also being questioned in the 1960s, as reflected in a portrait by Gerhard Richter -- which features a blurred, fading face.

"It manages to say a great deal about the Queen going out of focus -- people are no longer sure what she is for, what she represents," says Moorhouse.

But it is in the 1970s and 1980s that the image of the Queen came under most attack -- defaced on the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" album cover and parodied as a puppet in TV show "Spitting Image."

"In the 1980s, familiarity gives way almost to contempt," says Moorhouse, "and we see how the Queen becomes the focus of discontent in times of economic or political distress.

"You have Gilbert and George, with their photographic collage 'Coronation Cross,' really turning the tables," Moorhouse adds. "The cross is a wonderfully ambiguous image because it's traditionally to do with heraldry but also to do with crucifixion."

In the late 1990s, as the royal family's popularity sank to new lows in Britain following the death of Princess Diana, painter Justin Mortimer captured the prevailing mood by decapitating the Queen against a garish yellow backdrop.

Kim Dong Yoo was equally explicit with his work "Elizabeth II vs Diana," rendering the Queen's face from scores of tiny pictures of the late Princess of Wales.

In recent years, with the royal family enjoying a resurgence in popularity, the Queen has once again become a symbol of a shared national identity -- and the opportunity for a sitting at Buckingham Palace remains a tantalizing one for contemporary artists.

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"She is a unique individual and any artist would love to engage with her," says Chris Levine, who was accorded an audience with the Queen in 2004 for a commission from the Island of Jersey. "She transcends fame but she is human. I wanted to connect with her soul as I would any subject."

Levine's "Lightness of Being" -- a holographic picture that famously caught the Queen with her eyes closed -- was described by one critic as the "greatest portrait yet of Elizabeth II." Yet according to Levine the pose was unplanned. "I asked her to rest in between exposures and the magical moment happened," he says.

Even for a seasoned artist, the experience of taking the Queen's picture can be daunting. "I was quite blasé about it until the days leading up to the first shoot," says Levine. "Then the freedom I had been given in where I took the art direction, how I styled her clothing, the crown, the technique I wanted to use -- it all mounted as a pressure to meet expectations which had become high.

"I had the states of Jersey and the population of the island to answer to, as well as Her Majesty. It had to be more than good," he adds.

But for those who manage to produce a successful portrait of the monarch, the rewards are considerable.

"There are lots of famous people -- politicians, actors, musicians -- and pictures of them can have very widespread circulation, but ultimately all these people are to some extent disposable," says Moorhouse. "Politicians and celebrities come and go.

"The difference with the Queen is that when you are engaging with that subject you are engaging with history," he says. "Any image that is made of her is not just for today, it is part of an ongoing tradition of royal portraiture."