Modern monarchs: A look at contemporary royal couple portraits and their break from tradition

Royal portraits have always been a subject of controversy due to the varying artistic interpretations and the public’s expectation of how their monarchs should be represented. These portraits are not just about capturing a likeness, but they are also considered as an expression of national identity and power. However, in recent years, some royal portraits have caused quite a stir with their unconventional approach.

One such example is Lucian Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which was unveiled in 2001. The painting was met with mixed reactions; some appreciated Freud’s unique style while others were taken aback by his less-than-flattering depiction of the queen. Critics described it as ‘painful’, ‘unflattering’ and even ‘cruel’. A similar uproar followed when pop icon Andy Warhol released his pop art rendition of Queen Elizabeth II in bright colours that deviated from traditional royal portraiture.

Adding to this list are Dan Llewellyn Hall’s depiction of Prince William which faced criticism for its alleged lackadaisical execution, and Alison Jackson’s ‘Royal Selfie’, where she used lookalikes to create an imagined personal life for the royals causing both amusement and outrage among viewers. These controversies highlight how royal portraiture continues to evolve while challenging our perceptions about what is considered acceptable or not in representing monarchy.

Divisive Portrayals

In the realm of divisive portrayals, Justin Mortimer’s headless depiction of Queen Elizabeth II stands out. Presented in 1998, this painting shocked many with its audacious approach. The queen is portrayed without a head and her body adorned in royal regalia is placed against a bleak landscape. This portrayal was seen as a commentary on the diminishing relevance of monarchy and an exploration of mortality. However, it was met with public disapproval; many viewed it as disrespectful.

George Condo’s ‘Dreams and Nightmares of the Royal Couple’ stands out as a particularly debated piece. Presented at his 2006 London show, the artwork showcased four renditions of Queen Elizabeth II and her consort within one frame, each portrayal more peculiar than the last. Condo’s intention was to encapsulate both societal views and individual imaginings about the royal couple portrait, achieved through exaggerated characteristics and twisted shapes—hallmarks of his ‘psychological cubism’ style. While some praised the piece for its avant-garde interpretation of royal couple portraiture, others criticized it for its seemingly grotesque depiction.

Missing Artworks

Another intriguing case in the realm of royal portraiture revolves around Rolf Harris’s controversial portrait. The Australian artist painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 to mark her 80th birthday. This painting, which was initially well-received and even broadcasted on BBC as part of a documentary, suddenly disappeared from public view following a scandal involving its creator.

Harris was arrested and later convicted for child sexual abuse charges in 2014. Following his arrest, institutions that had previously displayed his work began distancing themselves from the disgraced artist. His painting of Queen Elizabeth II mysteriously vanished from public view and has not been seen since.

The exact whereabouts or fate of Harris’s royal portrait is unknown till date. Some speculate that it may have been quietly removed to avoid any association with the convicted artist while others suggest it could have been destroyed altogether.

This incident underscores how external factors can impact the reception and longevity of an artwork beyond its aesthetic value or historical significance. It also raises questions about what becomes of art when its creator falls from grace – whether it can be separated from their misdeeds or if it too becomes tainted by association.

Non-traditional representations

While some artists have courted controversy with their stark departures from traditional royal portraiture, others have managed to deviate from the norm without necessarily causing offense. A notable example is Paul Emsley’s official portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Unveiled in 2013, Emsley chose to depict Kate Middleton in a close-up format with an emphasis on her facial features rather than the usual full-body or half-length formats typically used for royal portraits.

Emsley’s approach was met with mixed reviews. Some critics felt that it aged the Duchess and lacked her vibrancy while others appreciated its photorealistic detail and considered it a breath of fresh air compared to more formal portrayals. However, both Kate and Prince William expressed their delight at this portrayal which adds another layer of complexity to how we evaluate these works.

Another interesting piece is by German artist Nicole Leidenfrost, who gifted Queen Elizabeth II a playful watercolour illustration depicting a young Princess Elizabeth driving an old-fashioned green truck during World War II. The piece was part of a book presented to the Queen during her visit to Germany in 2015.

Leidenfrost’s representation deviates significantly from traditional depictions but does so in an endearing way that celebrates Queen Elizabeth’s personal history rather than focusing solely on her regal status. It shows us that non-traditional representations can be well-received when they manage to capture something unique about their subject beyond just likeness or symbolism.


Throughout history, royal portraits have been a medium to celebrate monarchy, embody national identity and power. However, as we have seen through examples like Lucian Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II or Andy Warhol’s pop art rendition, these conventional perceptions are often challenged by unique styles that deviate from the norm.

These works elicit mixed reactions; while some view them as disrespectful or unflattering deviations from traditional representations of royalty, others appreciate them for their thought-provoking nature. Artistic interpretations such as Justin Mortimer’s headless Queen Elizabeth II and George Condo’s piece ‘Dreams and Nightmares of the Queen’ push boundaries and incite conversations about the evolving role of monarchy in contemporary society.

Non-traditional yet not necessarily controversial portrayals like Paul Emsley’s depiction of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge or Nicole Leidenfrost’s playful illustration gifted to Queen Elizabeth II show us that there is room for deviation without causing offense. These works challenge convention in a way that adds depth to our understanding of the royals beyond their public personas.

In conclusion, these controversial royal portraits serve not just as representations but also reflections on societal attitudes towards monarchy. They aren’t just likenesses captured on canvas but symbols open to interpretation – each viewer bringing in their own perceptions about respectfulness, flattery and what constitutes an acceptable depiction of royalty.