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1955 A Royal Pin-Up

In spite of a railway strike and a heatwave, attendance for the 1955 Exhibition reached almost 300,000, making it the most popular Summer Exhibition for over fifty years.1 The principal reason for this, as Sidney Hutchison wrote in his History of the Royal Academy, was the presence of Pietro Annigoni’s celebrated portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (1954–1955) (Fig. 1). This portrait was the focus of media attention throughout the Exhibition. One bulletin from the private view described a “solid mass of people” assembled to view the picture in Gallery IV, which resulted in an “almost complete traffic jam”.2 Some spectators, The Times reported, “had arrived 10 minutes before closing time and paid the admission fee, just to see the portrait”.3

Annigoni, an Italian artist, was turned away by the West End galleries to whom he showed his works when he first visited London in 1949.4 Three of his works were accepted for that year’s Summer Exhibition, however, and the resulting interest convinced the Bond Street Gallery Wildenstein to grant him an exhibition in the following year.5 A second exhibition with Wildenstein in April 1954 was a resounding success, so much so that the gallery director reputedly wished to remove from the window the self-portrait attracting visitors to the gallery.6

Shortly after that exhibition, Annigoni was commissioned to paint the Queen by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. Annigoni has inserted a reference to the Fishmongers in the painting, in the form of a tiny self-portrait of himself fishing on a lake.7 The artist’s identification with his patrons cooled, however, after he learned that he did not own the lucrative reproduction rights for the picture.8 Later, when painting the Duke of Edinburgh, he included a similar portrait of himself holding a large fish, which “symbolised the reproduction rights which, that time, I succeeded in keeping for myself.”9

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Sittings, which took place at Buckingham Palace, began late in 1954.10 The monarch was portrayed at three-quarter length, her gaze suggested by a comment she made to Annigoni that as a child she enjoyed watching people and cars from her window in Buckingham Palace.11 Annigoni set her against an imaginary landscape that reminded the Queen Mother of Scotland, and it was surely this setting that the photographer Annie Leibovitz had in mind when photographing the Queen in front of a wooded landscape in 2007.12

The portrait was made soon after the Queen returned from the lengthy tour of the Commonwealth that occupied much of the year following her coronation, and it evokes the optimism which marked her reign before the change of national mood brought about by the Suez Crisis of 1956. In the catalogue for a recent exhibition of portraits of the Queen, the curator Paul Moorhouse noted that the painting is “regarded as one of the greatest royal portraits of the twentieth century”, and that “it is the fusion of isolation and connectedness that accounts for the peculiar fascination exercised by the portrait.”13 That same connectedness was evident in the way the Queen carried out her duties, exemplified by the Commonwealth tour. By the time Annigoni’s portrait was exhibited, Elizabeth II had already made the first documented visit to the Royal Academy Schools by any British sovereign—a visit that included trying on a pair of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ spectacles and receiving a volume of “nursery sketches”, which Royal Academy Schools students had prepared for Prince Charles and Princess Anne!14

The critical response to the portrait was positive, with Annigoni’s technical skill noted even by those who found the painting uninspiring. Comparisons with Salvador Dalí were frequently made, and this is understandable looking at the strangely contorted branches which flank the Queen in the portrait.15 Perhaps the most incisive comments on the portrait were made by John Berger, then making his name writing for The New Statesman. Berger’s review was predicated on “the fact that the Royal Academy and the advertising hoardings are beginning to share exactly the same culture”, one in which “the expensive window dressing of sex is the new hallmark of social distinction”.16 For Berger, the genre of portraiture had been infected by the impersonal banality of advertising and the best he could say of Annigoni’s portrait was that it “has glamour. It is the nearest that, with respect, we can get to a Royal pin-up.”17 Another critic, meanwhile, compared the Queen’s pose with that of “a Dior model”,18 while Annigoni himself was clear that as well as conveying “regal majesty”, he wanted his portrait to show “a beautiful young woman”.19 It was Annigoni’s ability to marry the requirements of society portraiture with those of the modern media that qualified him to paint portraits of sitters including John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII for the cover of Time magazine in the 1960s.

It is striking how far removed Berger’s perspective on art and popular culture was from that of the Independent Group, the loose interdisciplinary collective centred on the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the early 1950s, which celebrated just that marriage of fine art and popular culture (anticipating Pop Art) that Berger rejected.20 One undeniable virtue of Berger’s writing, however, was his resistance to received wisdom, and this worked in Annigoni’s favour. In 1954, it would have seemed a conservative choice to portray Her Majesty, certainly in comparison with Graham Sutherland, who had reinvented himself as a society portraitist and at this time was painting his ill-fated portrait of Sir Winston Churchill.21 Three years later, Berger wrote about Annigoni and Sutherland together, observing that “Annigoni’s new portrait of ‘The Woman of Mystery’, now at Agnew’s, is beneath the contempt of the culturally sophisticated, whilst Graham Sutherland’s two portraits of Helena Rubinstein hang in a place of sophisticated honour at the Tate Gallery.”22 Berger had no wish to defend Annigoni, but equally he objected to what he considered the snobbery by which Sutherland was elevated above Annigoni.

Another target of Berger’s writing in the mid-1950s was Henry Moore, whom Berger had come to regard as exemplifying the modern artist refusing to engage with the challenges of the modern world.23 Even without this knowledge, one can hardly avoid thinking of Moore’s draped female figures when looking at the cartoon illustrating Berger’s 1955 Summer Exhibition review (Fig. 2). Annigoni’s portrait is examined by three figures inescapably reminiscent of Henry Moore’s draped figures, with a caption below reading “Well, dear, I don’t know much about Art but I do know what I like.” They might as well be those visitors who arrived ten minutes before the Exhibition closed, just to see the Queen.

  1. Sidney C. Hutchison, History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1986 (London: Robert Royce, 1986), 176; unsigned, “Academy Exhibition”, The Times, 3 August 1955, 10.↩︎

  2. Unsigned, “Picture of the Year”, Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1955. The decision to hang the painting in one of the Academy’s smaller galleries was criticised in some quarters, particularly since another portrait of the Queen, by Simon Elwes, was allocated a prized position in Gallery III. See unsigned, “Storm over the Queen’s Portrait”, Daily Sketch, 27 April 1955.↩︎

  3. Unsigned, “Success of R.A. Exhibition”, The Times, 13 August 1955, 8.↩︎

  4. Pietro Annigoni, An Artist’s Life (London: W.H. Allen, 1977), 64–65.↩︎

  5. The President of the Royal Academy at that time, Sir Alfred Munnings, was a great admirer of Annigoni’s work. See Annigoni, An Artist’s Life, 66–67.↩︎

  6. C.R. Cammell, Memoirs of Annigoni (London: Allan Wingate, 1956), 99. A photograph of crowds lining the pavement outside the gallery is reproduced in Annigoni, An Artist’s Life.↩︎

  7. The artist quipped: “what no one knows but me is that at the end of that line is the biggest salmon anyone has ever caught.” Unsigned, “The Queen’s Portrait is Finished”, Scottish Daily Mail, 11 March 1955, Royal Academy press clippings.↩︎

  8. In Italy, at this time, the artist retained copyright unless agreed otherwise, but Annigoni did not realise that this was not the case in Britain. Annigoni, An Artist’s Life, 87.↩︎

  9. Annigoni, An Artist’s Life, 87.↩︎

  10. In the catalogue of the exhibition The Queen: Art and Image, Paul Moorhouse states that fifteen sittings took place between October and Christmas 1954; Paul Moorhouse, The Queen: Art and Image, exhibition catalogue (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011), 40. Annigoni in his autobiography suggests there were sixteen sittings, the last of which took place in February 1955; Annigoni, An Artist’s Life, 85.↩︎

  11. Annigoni, An Artist’s Life, 82.↩︎

  12. Annigoni, An Artist’s Life, 86. Leibovitz’s photograph is reproduced in Moorhouse, The Queen, 152–153.↩︎

  13. Moorhouse, The Queen, 68 and 40.↩︎

  14. Unsigned, “Queen Steps into the Background”, The Daily Herald, 25 March 1955, Royal Academy press clippings; Unsigned, “London Day”, The Daily Telegraph, 25 March 1955, Royal Academy press clippings.↩︎

  15. See, for example, unsigned, “Pietro Annigoni”, The Times, 8 April 1954, 10; Douglas Cooper, “Italian Painter”, The Times Literary Supplement, 28 May 1954, 340.↩︎

  16. John Berger, “The Nylon Academy”, The New Statesman, 7 May 1955, 645.↩︎

  17. John Berger, “The Nylon Academy”, The New Statesman, 7 May 1955, 645.↩︎

  18. Hero Kanis, “This is Annigoni”, unidentified publication, 40–42, 162. Copy in Royal Academy press clippings for July–August 1955.↩︎

  19. Unsigned, “The Queen’s Portrait is Finished”, Scottish Daily Mail, 11 March 1955, Royal Academy press clippings.↩︎

  20. Much of Richard Hamilton’s work of this period, for instance, makes a virtue of exactly the vices Berger denounced in his review of the 1955 Exhibition.↩︎

  21. Lady Churchill destroyed the portrait shortly after it was presented to the sitter, on account of the discomfort it caused him.↩︎

  22. John Berger, “Roses by Other Names”, The New Statesman, 25 January 1958, 102.↩︎

  23. Berger’s writings on Moore are surveyed in Tom Overton, “‘I tried to push him down the stairs’: John Berger and Henry Moore in Parallel”, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity (London: Tate Research Publication, 2015), (accessed 29 April 2018).↩︎

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