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A holographic monarch: Chris Levine's "Lightness of Being" required hundreds of shots, each exposed for eight seconds (Credit: Chris Levine) 

Historically, royal portraits are only nominally images of an individual: their real subject is an idea. They were designed to show the institution of monarchy itself and the divine right of kings — the personality of the sitter was not a prerequisite. As Edward Burne-Jones noted: "The only expression allowable in great portraiture is the expression of character and moral quality, not anything temporary, fleeting, or accidental." 

In the pre-photographic age, an official portrait — Hyacinthe Rigaud's depictions of Louis XIV for example — would be copied and distributed around the realm to sit in government buildings as a symbol of state. The present Queen came to the throne at the tail end of this tradition, but the majority of the portraits of her painted subsequently show not just how perceptions of monarchy have changed, but also something of her own relationship to art.

The National Portrait Gallery's Diamond Jubilee exhibition, The Queen: Art and Image, contains 60 portraits spanning the 60 years of her reign. This is a considerable feat of winnowing since she is probably the most visually depicted person in history at any rate from life. The chosen pictures include formal portraits and photographs from the likes of Pietro Annigoni and Cecil Beaton to unofficial representations by Eve Arnold, Gilbert and George, and Gerhard Richter, and innumerable press photographers. She remains the personification of an idea in them all, except that in many the idea has changed. 

Annigoni's famous 1954 image of the Queen standing in Garter robes against a landscape background was disseminated around the empire and has as much in common with Georgian portraiture as Elizabethan. The expression she wears in this picture, of studied inexpressiveness, has hardly altered in other portraits over six decades. Given society's subsequent shift in attitude towards the Royal Family, from reverence to familiarity, what artists have since probed is the impenetrability of that look. Some have searched for clues of the woman behind the public face and others have appropriated the image itself.

Perhaps two of the clearest examples of these approaches are the portraits of her by Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol. When Warhol depicted her in 1985 it was of a piece with his fascination with celebrity. He took a pre-existing, bland photograph of her and transformed it into a series of vivid screenprints, just as he had with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Her personality didn't impinge on him at all, these are images of an image; he showed them alongside another series of prints of the Queen of Swaziland. When Freud painted her in 2001, however, he chose an unmonarchical canvas only 20cm tall and filled it with her face. The Queen sat for him over an 18-month period and, despite the crown, his is clearly not a painting about majesty (she wears a blue jacket rather than ermine and the sittings took place in a basement in St James's Palace) but about old age and experience. The reason the crown — one of her most spectacular — perches so incongruously atop her coiffure is to emphasise the difference between the woman and the institution.

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