Tracey Emin draws the Queen

Tracey Emin has met the Queen both in her home town of Margate and at Buckingham Palace. Emin is a strong royalist, and when we asked her if she would create a royal portrait for the FT Weekend Magazine to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, she readily agreed. This drawing is the result. Emin has entitled it ‘HRH Royal Britania’. She wanted the image to be ‘strong and sexy and strident’, she says. ‘This is what Britannia represents to me’

I have met the Queen twice. She wasn’t at all how I expected. She was extremely petite with a massive smile. Informed. With a good sense of humour. I had imagined her to be a lot more austere, but I was completely wrong. It is her smile that comes to mind when I think of her.

The confusing factor of doing this drawing was that I could have drawn the Queen from how I remembered her. But I decided to represent her as a motif or a symbol, and I think that is how the public acknowledge her. We have a queen – we don’t have a king, we don’t have a dictator – and I think that’s really important. The figurehead of our country is a woman.

The Queen represents something unique in the times we are living in. I support the monarchy, and I think the younger royals are really going to change things. But I don’t think the Queen should retire: she should do exactly what she wants to do.

I’m pleased that people are starting to realise the Queen actually works very hard for this country. I didn’t understand this when I was younger but now I do – with full admiration.

I looked at hundreds of photographs of the Queen in my research. If I had drawn her as she is today it would have just been from my imagination, but I actually referenced drawings of the Queen to draw her. I also did a series of drawings of her as “Mother and Child”, but I decided to use this one as I thought she looked quite sexy. People forget how amazingly glamorous the queen was as a young woman, I mean that she looked like a young Hollywood starlet. I called the drawing “HRH Royal Britania”: I wanted the image to have a romantic title and also be strong and sexy and strident, and this is what Britannia represents to me.

Tracey Emin’s solo exhibition at Turner Contemporary, Margate, opens on May 26

An edition of ‘HRH Royal Britania’ will be made available through Emin International. For enquiries, please visit

Portraits of our times

Tracey Emin has sketched for the FT Weekend Magazine a delightful drawing of a younger Queen in which Emin moves her back in time and explicitly represents her “as a motif or symbol” – with emphasis on a highly worked crown, writes Sandy Nairne. Jewels, costumes and crowns traditionally made up much of the ceremonial expectation in royal depictions.

Yet, in the modern period, as the role of the monarchy has shifted and is subject to a media world’s constant demand for new stories and images, formal portraits have become challenging and certainly more complex. The Queen has been an assiduous sitter and is today the most portrayed person in British history. Whether depicted by artists or photographers, the very fact of the Queen’s 60 years on the throne now puts considerable emphasis on her continuing presence, serving the nation and the Commonwealth amid all the changes in the world, the country and her family. Portraits of her, although clearly of a symbolic figure, still raise the question of whether anything can be conveyed of the person. Will we understand more of her through paying close attention to these images?

Queen Elizabeth II, by Pietro Annigoni, 1969

The Diamond Jubilee offers an exceptional opportunity to examine this oscillation between person and image. Portraiture of the Queen, across more than half a century, extends from the romantic images of the beautiful young woman of the “new Elizabethan age” depicted by Cecil Beaton or Dorothy Wilding, through to the mid-reign classics by Snowdon, Parkinson or Lichfield, and to the painted portraits often created for the many organisations of which she is patron. With the first of two portraits by Pietro Annigoni, painted in 1954-1955, we feel we are in the hands of a master working in the grand style – it is an entrancing image, with the turn of the head accentuating the good looks of this slim young woman. By the late 1960s, the Annigoni portrait commissioned by Hugh Leggatt for the National Portrait Gallery has become more magisterial, more regal. As an image it seems linked to the Cecil Beaton photograph of her wearing the admiral’s boat cloak (explored again by Annie Leibovitz in 2007) and set against a blue backdrop, powerful in its simplicity. Described recently by the V&A curator Susannah Brown as “contemplative and timeless”, it was first exhibited at Sir Roy Strong’s great Cecil Beaton exhibition in 1968. Beaton had removed all the regalia and finery that appeared in so many of his earlier photographic portraits, including the famous Coronation image with a projected backdrop of Westminster Abbey.

From left: The Queen on board HMY Britannia in March 1971, by Patrick Lichfield; 'Queen Elizabeth II', by Dorothy Wilding, 1952; 'Queen Elizabeth II', by Andy Warhol, 1985

The decision made in 2010 to invite Thomas Struth to create a new portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for the National Portrait Gallery soon evolved into discussions about the best format, location and lighting. Once Windsor Castle became an option, Struth settled on the grand setting of the Green Drawing Room. His research turned later to a fruitful discussion with the Queen’s dresser to explore complementary colours. When, on the day of the sitting, I introduced the Queen and the Duke to the artist and to Paul Moorhouse, curator of 20th-century portraits at the NPG, the royal couple seemed cautious. However, Struth regarded her as superbly professional to his direction, and seemingly intrigued that he was using a plate camera and no artificial lights.

The seat turned slightly on the angle gives so much away about Struth’s scrupulously planned work.

Even the very best royal portraits may not get us closer to the actual person, but they tell us something of our times. From the beautiful but transitory images of the young star to the Queen we now respect as a wise senior figure, we have perhaps moved to a Britain that is, whatever its frailties, much more comfortable with itself.

Sandy Nairne is the director of the National Portrait Gallery.

‘The Queen: Art and Image’, sponsored by KPMG and part of the Herbert Smith Spring Season, opened last week and runs until October 21 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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