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May 31 2012

John Lennon and Yoko Ono: the image that defines the second Elizabethan era

Their famous protest against the Vietnam war let the cameras into the bedroom – and ushered in the age of celebrity

John Lennon and Yoko Ono are staying in bed to protest against war. It is 1969, and the conflict in question is Vietnam. They've just got married. The protest is also their honeymoon – and they drag it out, staging two "bed-ins" at hotels in Amsterdam and Montreal. Inviting the media to witness their recumbent defiance, they abolish the difference between the public and the private.

This, in my view, is the iconic image of the second Elizabethan era: it captures so much that changed during her reign. When Elizabeth was young, men of all classes wore hats as a matter of politeness. Other habits were equally staid: when British soldiers were fighting Japan in Burma in the 1940s, they were disadvantaged because they refused to try the local rice, and would only eat canned "British" food. This picture, taken a little less than 20 years into Elizabeth's reign, shows how the cultural revolution of the 1960s transformed life in ways that are still being worked out today.

By 1969, Britain had travelled a long way from bowler-hatted repression: the country was high not just on drugs and love, but on the medium and the message. The Beatles led an outburst of feeling and free expression. Here, Lennon and Ono sum up the decade's assault on tradition. Newlyweds, they let cameras into their bedroom. They probably didn't know, however, all they were implying by this. As stars, they have allowed the media and their fans total access: the po-faced decencies of 1953 have given way to complete self-exposure as these celebrities treat themselves as public property.

It is an outrageous act of communication - and viewing this moment from the vantage point of 2012, in the 60th year of the second Elizabethan age, we can see a continuity with the cultural revolution we are experiencing today. What exploded in the reign of Elizabeth Windsor was the power of human beings to communicate with one another. And yes, Britain led the way with its 1960s conquest of global popular culture. Pop music was above all a freeing-up of words and gestures, its emotive messages sped by the new availability of records, tapes and transistor radios. Lennon saw clearer than any other star how this could become both a form of political campaigning and obliterate all distance between celebrities and the public.

This photograph is a visual tweet: Lennon and Ono open themselves to the world in the same way everyone is now doing on Twitter and Facebook. Lennon was to experience the dark side of fame – shot dead just because he was a celebrity. But in this picture, the utopian promise of the new Elizabethan age is laid bare: everything and everybody, here and now, together.

Have you taken a photograph that sums up the second Elizabethan era for you? Share your photographs from the last 60 yearsour Art and Design Flickr group. We'll feature a selection of pictures on the site.


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May 26 2012

The big picture: Salford, Manchester, June 1977

Next week will see thousands of royal jubilee street parties up and down the country. This is how they did it 35 years ago in Stowell Street…

For most of us, after a lifetime of being reigned over, monarchy means matriarchy. The Queen is supposed to be the mother of us all, although, not having done well with her personal brood, she has never seemed eager to clasp the rest of us to her bosom. Instead of a hug we have made do with the distant wave of a gloved hand and a grimly stoical smile. Here, on the day of an earlier jubilee in 1977, she has deputies who do the job more enthusiastically and demonstrate the truth of the metaphor on which the Queen's sovereignty depends. Yes, the nation truly is a family, presided over by a supply of mums as endless as the tapering perspective of that table in the street.

Aprons on, trays in hand, they perform their primal task, which is to serve up cakes and stand guard while they are eaten. Dads are not much in evidence: apart from a few stragglers they have no doubt taken cover in the pub on the corner. Seated at the table are the heirs apparent, mostly princesses, wearing temporary tiaras and crowns of paper. Freud spoke of "His Majesty the Child", a brat whose every screeching whim is catered to by sycophantic parents; here the scene is less neurotic, and the young absolutists, with grown-ups stationed behind their chairs like courtiers, gaze at the banquet without gobbling it up.

Perhaps it's the fixity of the photograph, which has stopped time and deferred the grubby business of eating, but it looks as solemnly ritualistic as any state occasion. The point is not the food; what matters is the long sacramental table with its pristine white cloth, connecting past, present and future as it stretches the length of the street. The contentment captured here is as dated as the clothes – bell-bottoms, over-decorated sweaters – and the floppy haircuts.

A street party will be happening outside my front door in London next weekend. The neighbours have laid on DJs and promise dance lessons; the invitation dismissively advises you to bring your own food. The idea seems to be to go clubbing in the daylight, so it will be noisy but not convivial. Those who live here are unneighbourly, unrooted strangers, not stable families, and any cakes consumed here are bought not home-made.

Instead, I'll probably go for an imaginary walk down this street in Salford, towards a vanishing point lost in the blitz of flapping flags. That is why photographs exist – to remind us that once upon a time we were happy.


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May 08 2012

Effigy of 'Lost Prince' Henry Stuart to go on show at National Portrait Gallery

Funeral effigy of 18-year-old prince forms part of exhibition of objects associated with the almost forgotten son of James I

A bundle of old sticks, which frankly will look very odd exhibited among treasures of paintings, miniatures, manuscripts and armour by artists including Rubens, Holbein and Inigo Jones, is all that remains of a funeral effigy that 400 years ago reduced crowds lining the streets of London to "an ocean of tears".

The National Portrait Gallery is preparing to stage the first exhibition anywhere on one of British history's great what ifs – what if Henry, the now almost forgotten handsome, sporty, clever – and devoutly Protestant – son of James I, big brother of the feeble and sickly Charles, had not died of typhoid in 1612 aged just 18.

Would he have reigned in peace and prosperity and had a brood of healthy children, or would he too have plunged his country into civil war and lost his head on a scaffold in Whitehall?

For curator Catharine MacLeod, the ugliest and most battered object in the autumn exhibition will also be one of the most striking. The headless, armless, wooden torso once completed with a wax portrait head modelled from life, and dressed in the prince's own magnificent robes, is being loaned by Westminster Abbey, where it has not been exhibited for at least 200 years.

"I find it very poignant, a tremendously moving symbol of the decline into which his memory has fallen," she said.

In 1612, the effigy laid on top of his coffin was so lifelike it had a devastating impact on viewers. A witness described "an innumerable multitude of all sorts of ages and degrees of men, women and children … some weeping, crying, howling, wringing of their hands, others halfe dead … passionately betraying so great a losse with rivers, nay with an ocean of teares."

The wonderful clothes were stolen within a few years, the head was gone by the early 19th century, and the arms, probably originally sacking stuffed with straw, have long since rotted away.

It will be shown among more conventionally splendid objects, including loans from the royal collection and museum and private collections, including a spectacular suit of armour, and designs for a court masque by Inigo Jones in which the handsome youth appeared as the fairy king Oberon.

Trinity College Cambridge is sending his copy book, showing one page of beautifully transcribed Latin poetry and one of touchingly teenage doodles, squiggles, and trial signatures.

At the age of 16 he was already building up a spectacular art collection, including the superb Holbein drawings now among the most precious works in the Windsor Castle library. He was also so interested in shipbuilding that Sir Walter Raleigh, imprisoned in the tower, wrote him a treatise on the subject.

His death also sealed the fate of his younger brother Charles, so feeble and sickly he was left behind in Scotland for years when his father became king on the death of Elizabeth I and moved south with his family.

The Royal Collection is loaning a small bronze horse, a sculpture dating from 1600 by Pietro Tacco, which both princes obviously regarded as a particular treasure. When Henry lay on his deathbed, the 12-year-old Charles sent for the horse and gave it to his brother hoping it would cheer him up - but it was too late.

Charles was chief mourner at the funeral, which his father could not bear to attend. Months later, in the middle of a conversation with diplomats, the king suddenly collapsed, sobbing: "Henry is dead, Henry is dead."

• The Lost Prince: the life and death of Henry Stuart, National Portrait Gallery. London, October 2012-January 2013


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March 28 2012

Crown jewels exhibition: - audio slideshow

To celebrate the Queen's diamond jubilee, the Tower of London is opening a new £2.5m exhibition of the crown jewels. Hadley Freeman talks us through the highlights



March 23 2012

From the archive, 23 March 1960: Royal collection open to public

Originally published in the Guardian on 23 March 1960

London seems likely to have a new national and international art gallery in Buckingham Palace by about Christmas 1961. If Parliament agrees -it would seem churlish not to - the Queen is willing to open a small part of Buckingham Palace for displays of the royal collection, the finest private collection of Old Masters in the world.
The idea is that the private chapel of the palace, destroyed by a bomb during the war, should be rebuilt to contain a smaller chapel and a small art gallery. For special occasions the gallery could be used as an extension of the chapel. The cost of the proposed rebuilding is £40,000.
The consequences would be that for the first time her subjects would be able to enter the Queen's home and inspect selections of paintings and other works of art brought into the gallery from the palace and from other royal residences. Parts of Windsor Castle and the gardens of Sandringham and Balmoral are opened to the public at certain times, but nothing of the kind has happened up to now at Buckingham Palace.

The royal collections are generous and the most important paintings are so liberally lent out that few of the greatest items have not been seen in public in the last twenty years. There were 80 "royal" items in the last great Italian Exhibition in Burlington House, where - ten years ago - there was also a memorable show drawn exclusively from the royal collections. The main glories are Canalettos, Venetian masterpieces, Van Dycks, Holbeins, Italian Primitives, Reynoldses, Gainsboroughs and the Lely series of "beauties" and "admirals". They are well distributed among royal residences. Art historians have often speculated about what would have been the situation if Cromwell had not had his famous (or some say infamous) sale of Charles the First's collection, remnants of which are still among the main treasures.
When the new gallery is organised it will, of course, need a curator and a catalogue or series of catalogues. The surveyor of the Queen's pictures is Sir Anthony Blunt, who is also director of the Courtauld Institute. His deputy is Mr Oliver Millar, and between them they have all the knowledge needed to produce the catalogue. It might seem logical for Mr Millar to have day-to-day charge of the Buckingham Palace gallery, for he already does so much of the sort of work that would be involved.


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March 07 2012

Hampton Court exhibition reveals damned beauties of Stuart era

Catching the eye of King Charles II could bring a woman riches or a phial of poison from a jealous husband

For the beautiful young women at the court of "the merry monarch" Charles II, trying to live on their wits and their looks was a dangerous gamble. At least two of the subjects of a new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace died so young, and so unexpectedly, that contemporary gossip insisted they were poisoned by jealous husbands.

The exhibition, the first at Hampton Court on the Stuart period after a decade spent on the Tudors and Henry VIII, is in the Queen's state apartments, which were created in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren for Mary II.

"Beauty was a very thin line," the show's curator, Brett Dolman, said. "On one side, beauty is taken as a symbol of virtue and perfection, beauty could allow you to rise far beyond your original station in life. On the other, beauty is viewed with suspicion as a snare and one wrong step and your reputation is destroyed forever."

The portrait of Elizabeth Butler, by the 17th-century artist Peter Lely, usually hangs at Chevening in Kent, the mansion once owned by her husband, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, and now shared by the foreign secretary, William Hague, and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg. Butler attracted the roving eye of the king's brother, James, was sent away from court by Stanhope – despite his own rackety reputation – and was dead within the year.

Margaret Brooke, one of two beautiful sisters, was also targeted by James but married a much older poet, John Denham: she too was sent from court and was dead within a year, aged 20.

On the other hand Frances Stuart, painted by Lely as Diana the hunter, and dubbed "the prettiest girl in the world" by the diarist Samuel Pepys, just about kept clear of the king's grasping hands, married well and became the model for Britannia on the coinage.

The most famously avaricious for both money and power, and the mistress who retained power over the king for longest, was Barbara Villiers: the exhibition includes the outrageous portrait of her as the Virgin Mary, dandling her son by the king, both perfectly recognisable to her contemporaries.

Nell Gwynn will sprawl naked at the heart of the exhibition, her past as an actor and Covent Garden orange seller forgotten, her two sons by the king on their way to becoming nobility – even if legend says she dangled one out of a window and threatened to let go to win him a title. The portrait the king is said to have displayed at the head of his bed, concealed behind a blameless landscape, is coming on loan from a private collector – it was auctioned at Christie's in 2007 for £1.7m.

She was loved as much for her wit as her beauty: when a crowd stopped her carriage, believing it held Louise de Keroualle, suspected of being a Catholic French spy, Gwynn retorted: "Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore." She is also said to have handicapped a rival for the king, Moll Davis, by lacing her food with a purgative.

Many of the portraits come from two famous series in the royal collection, The Windsor Beauties and the Hampton Court Beauties – but Dolman says visitors have in the past walked past them like wallpaper.

"Part of the problem is their baroque style which, apart from the period when it was the height of fashion, has tended to be viewed with suspicion: not English enough, too racy, too French."

Many of the beauties have spent years in store, including the wildest – by repute – of them all, Hortense Mancini, niece of the French Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The painting shows her sister reading her palm and prophesying she will fall in love with a king: by the time she reached the court in 1676, on the run from an older husband so mad he forbade his female servants to milk cows lest it give them sexual kicks, gossip said she had slept with many men, at least one priest, several nuns and the king's illegitimate daughter – with whom she fought a public fencing match with both women in nightgowns.

"I don't know how many of the stories can possibly be true," Dolman said. "I can't see how she would have had the time."

The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey from 5 April to 30 September www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/


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January 01 2012

David Hockney joins Order of Merit

Artist who refused to paint the Queen or accept knighthood is appointed to the exclusive royal order

He was the 1960s radical who turned British painting on its head, but on Sunday the Queen sealed David Hockney's transformation into national treasure by appointing him to the Order of Merit.

Buckingham Palace announced that the 74-year-old Bradford-born painter and photographer would join the select group of individuals who have achieved distinction in the arts, learning, science and public service.

Hockney's appointment follows the death in 2011 of his friend Lucian Freud, the only painter in the order – which has no more than 24 members at one time.

Hockney's selection appeared to confirm the establishment view that he is now seen as the leading British painter of his day. Augustus John and Graham Sutherland were previous members of the exclusive order, which has its own insignia featuring the crown, a laurel wreath and the words in gold lettering "for merit".

Hockney, a smoker who has campaigned for smokers' rights, responded to news of the honour yesterday with a self-deprecating joke. "No comment," he said. "Other than it's nice to know they are not prejudiced against the older smoker."

He recently turned down a request to paint a portrait of the Queen, saying he was too busy painting landscapes, and in 1990 he rejected a knighthood.

"I do not think life is about prizes," he told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus in 2003 when asked about his decision to refuse the KBE. "I put them all in the bottom drawer and leave them there. I don't value prizes of any sort. I value my friends. Prizes of any sort are a bit suspect."

Members of the Order of Merit gather periodically for lunches at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which are attended by the Queen as well as Prince Philip and Prince Charles, who are both OMs.

Hockney joins the playwright Tom Stoppard, former Speaker Lady Boothroyd and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, who are already members of the order of merit.

Other OMs include the wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, the financier Lord Rothschild and Lord Rees of Ludlow, the astronomer royal. Appointments to the order, which was founded in 1902 by King Edward VII, are in the sovereign's personal gift and ministerial advice is not required. Non-Commonwealth honorary members have included Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

Buckingham Palace announced that John Howard, the former prime minister of Australia, has also been appointed to the order.

Hockney is back living in Yorkshire, but produced some of the most celebrated images of his career in Los Angeles, including what became known as his swimming pool paintings, the most famous of which was A Bigger Splash in 1967.

Other famous works include Mr And Mrs Clark And Percy – a picture of the fashion designer Ossie Clark, his then wife Celia Birtwell and their cat. In the 1970s Hockney was commissioned by the Glyndebourne Festival and Metropolitan Opera in New York to design the backdrops for operatic productions.

Hockney is preparing a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London called A Bigger Picture, which will feature his vast new landscape paintings and an innovative moving image collage, which harnesses multiple cameras to capture views of the countryside around his home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, where he went to live in 2005. It was this project that Hockney gave as a reason for not being able to paint the Queen.

"When I was asked I told them I was very busy painting England actually. Her country," he told the BBC last year. He said she would be a "terrific subject" but "I generally only paint people I know, I'm not a flatterer really."

As well as producing huge canvases, Hockney has produced a series of images drawn using a painting programme on iPads and iPhones. Hockney has said recently that he has more energy now than he did a decade ago.

"I draw flowers every day on my iPhone, and send them to my friends, so they get fresh flowers every morning," he told Martin Gayford, an art historian who last year published a book of conversations with Hockney called A Bigger Message. "And my flowers last. Not only can I draw them as if in a little sketchbook, I can also then send them to 15 or 20 people, who then get them that morning when they wake up."

Gayford said Hockney would have no problem "gelling" with other members, calling him a brilliant conversationalist "incapable of saying anything boring".

"He has always had an inner certainty that gives him the confidence to challenge orthodoxy about anything he feels strongly about," he said. "That has shown through in his career, including in his decision to take on landscape painting. People said landscape painting was over and he took that as a challenge, as can be seen in this new exhibition."

The order of merit

Duke of Edinburgh 1968

William Owen Chadwick Religious scholar 1983

Andrew Huxley Physiologist 1983

Frederick Sanger Biochemist 1986

Margaret Thatcher Politician 1990

Michael Atiyah Mathematician 1992

Nelson Mandela Politician 1995 (honorary member)

Aaron Klug Chemist 1995

Norman Foster Architect 1997

Anthony Caro Sculptor 2000

Roger Penrose Mathematical physicist 2000

Tom Stoppard Playwright 2000

Prince Charles 2002

Robert May Scientist 2002

Jacob Rothschild Banker 2002

David Attenborough Broadcaster 2005

Betty Boothroyd politician 2005

Michael Howard Military historian 2005

Robert Eames Former Anglican primate 2007

Tim Berners-Lee Internet pioneer 2007

Martin Rees Astro–physicist 2007

Jean Chrétien Former Canadian PM 2009

Neil MacGregor Museum director 2010

David Hockney Artist 2012

John Howard former Australian PM 2012


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November 11 2011

And what do you paint? Queen meets Tracey Emin in Margate

Two pillars of the establishment come face to face when monarch visits Turner Contemporary gallery in artist's home town

Tracey Emin was soberly dressed, head to toe in dark grey Vivienne Westwood. The Queen had also made an effort. She wore a pink and white basket weave dress and coat by Stewart Parvin. And together they met on a cold, grey Friday in Margate – two pillars of the establishment albeit of a very different kind.

The occasion was a visit by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to the Turner Contemporary, the David Chipperfield-designed gallery which opened in April. A royal seal of approval, perhaps, for the glut of galleries which have opened over the past decade from Gateshead (where she has also been) to Wakefield and Nottingham to Colchester.

Emin – Margate-born and bred, bad girl turned near national treasure – was introduced to the royal couple in front of JMW Turner's 1815 masterpiece, Crossing the Brook, part of an eclectic show celebrating youth culture.

It is not clear if the Queen – who has quite a large collection herself, of course – was entirely aware of Emin's work, apparently asking if she exhibited internationally as well as Margate.

But they seemed to get on extremely well. Afterwards Emin said the Queen had been very relaxed and funny. "She knew that I'd grown up here and I told her about my misspent youth and I said I was trying to make up for it now," she said.

They also talked about a show Emin is taking part in next year, in which there will also be works by Turner and Rodin.

"They were both quite enthusiastic and surprised that I was having an exhibition in the whole space and I explained I was sharing it with Turner. I didn't say it was the erotic works of Turner.

"It was brilliant, very nice. She had a big, beaming smile so I immediately felt really relaxed."

Prince Philip also passed on some advice to the Tate, suggesting the gallery should put some other artists in the Clore galleries other than Turner.

The couple seemed to enjoy their scoot around the show, with the Queen asking what one work by the New York collective Bernadette Corporation was. In truth, it's hard to tell – a banner wrapped around a small scaffold. It is in fact a damning critique of the sexualisation of young women in advertising.

After viewing the exhibition it was downstairs for a lunch of locally caught halibut and local beer.

This was a big day for Turner Contemporary, which is playing its part in helping Margate to claw its way up from the doldrums.

Since it opened in April, more than 300,000 people have visited – a remarkable figure since the gallery had been expecting just over 156,000 for the entire year.

Victoria Pomery, the gallery's director, said: "It has been hugely successful, beyond my wildest expectations.

"It has been amazing and goes to show that in a time of economic downturn and recession, the arts are more important than ever, they really are. There's a real demand and appetite for what the arts can bring to any of us."

Margate itself is a town on the up, with 35 businesses opening in the old town in the past year, including a cupcake shop, also visited by the royal couple.

"There is still lots of change to happen, we'd all agree on that," said Pomery. "There's a real impact being felt as a result of Turner Contemporary. But the building will only work with fantastic art and people in it."

Emin recalled growing up in a town that felt "incredibly glamorous" – packed with tourists, beauty competitions, variety acts. "It felt like it was sunny all the time."

And then there was the downturn.

"I still think there should be an inquiry into what happened to Margate. How did it happen? Who was responsible? It's good that things are getting better but how did this happen to Margate?

"The thing is, wherever art goes, commerce follows. I just didn't expect the Queen to follow it."

Emin, who said her 17-year-old self did not think she would be alive at this age let alone meeting the Queen, was accompanied by her mum Pam.

"I'm very proud of her," said Emin senior. "It's such an honour that she's meeting the Queen."

"I came to Margate over 40 years ago and it was thriving and busy and suddenly everything became different. This gallery is making a difference, it's lovely here at the weekends."


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Royal Manuscripts: British Library lights up the middle ages – in pictures

See highlights from a new London exhibition which brings to life illustrated books belonging to the kings and queens of medieval England



October 11 2011

Diamond jubilee £5 coin launched – yours for £12.99

Souvenir issued by Royal Mint features Queen as she is today on one side and her younger self on the reverse

A £5 coin to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee next year, featuring the monarch's head on both sides, has been issued by the Royal Mint – priced at £12.99.

The mint explained the cost by saying that it was a commemorative rather than a circulating coin, with a value determined by the quality of its finish rather than its face value. There is still expected to be a significant worldwide demand.

One side of the coin shows the Queen's head as it first appeared on the currency when she was crowned in 1953 – youthful, garlanded with a laurel crown and accompanied by the Latin motto: Dirige Deus Gressus Meos (May God Guide My Steps).

The other side features a contemporary portrait of the ageing monarch, somewhat more jowly, dressed in garter robes.

The mint said the coin is an "ideal choice for people wishing to mark the jubilee … a permanent and treasured souvenir that can be passed from one generation to the next".

The Queen's head on UK coinage has gone through four redesigns during her lengthy reign. Her portrait as a 27 year-old in 1953, designed by Mary Gillick, appeared on pre-decimal coins such as farthings, shillings and florins. It was updated by Arnold Machin in 1968, then again in 1985, by Raphael Maklouf. Ian Rank-Broadley redesigned the portrait in 1998 and he has also designed the latest coin.

The main focus of the diamond jubilee will come at the end of next May with a flotilla of boats proceeding down the Thames in London, with the Queen in the lead barge, on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend.


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September 06 2011

Hampton Court Palace: 'A potent symbol of political intrigue'

In the second of our series of films celebrating the best British buildings, political commentator Michael White retraces the steps of monarchs in Hampton Court Palace



June 08 2011

Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton – in pictures

The V&A is staging an exhibition for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee of previously unseen pictures alongside formal portraits



Unseen Cecil Beaton pictures of Queen to go on show at V&A

Major photography exhibition will mark Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Previously unseen pictures of a young and relaxed Princess Elizabeth by Cecil Beaton, one of the most celebrated of photographers, will join his formal portraits of the Queen at a major exhibition at the Victorian and Albert museum to mark the Diamond Jubilee, it was announced yesterday.

The show at the V&A draws on more than 18,000 photographs, negatives and transparencies in the V&A's collection of Beaton's royal portraits. Alongside nearly 30 years of the Queen's portraits, there will be excerpts from Beaton's diaries and letters.

Given the nature of Beaton's commission, his work was up among the most widely viewed and published photographs of the 20th century, many of the portraits will be quite familiar.

But the show's curator, Susanna Brown, said there would be items not previously exhibited, including informal snapshots of the Queen preparing for her coronation day in 1953, and the golden coach returning to the palace afterward. There will also be unexhibited shots of the wartime bomb damage to Buckingham Palace during the blitz – it was hit nine times.

Beaton prepared intensively and nervously for each sitting in an attempt to get the perfect portrait. "I think they got on very well," said Brown. "I think she [the Queen] understood that he was a real asset to them: he could really help, in terms of their public profile, and his images were circulated so widely. We tend to forget that these images were made for PR purposes; they went all over the world."

Beaton took photographs of Elizabeth at various stages of her reign: as a 16-year-old on becoming colonel-in-chief of the Grenadier Guards, at her coronation, and after the birth of each of her four children.

One unanswered question is why the final Beaton portrait of the Queen is a formal setting, in the palace's Blue Drawing Room, from 1968: why none from the 1970s, when the photographer was very much continuing to work, up until his death, in 1980?

A version of the V&A show will open at the McManus museum and gallery, in Dundee, before opening in London on 8 February; it will then tour Leeds, Norwich and Newcastle.


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May 24 2011

Obama's stay at the palace: lunch, then a tour of the priceless art collection

How to entertain a US president who comes to stay? The Queen can go one better than getting out the old photo albums

During her long reign, the Queen has met a quarter of all American presidents, but few have stayed at Buckingham Palace for a sleepover. But Barack Obama – a man almost young enough to be her grandson, younger than three of her four children – was a guest on Monday night with his wife Michelle. Generations and continents apart in experience and age, they seemed to be getting on like a house on fire.

But how to entertain the nice, polite young man after lunch? Some of us might get out the family album, or the holiday souvenirs. The Queen can go several steps better: laid out in her private gallery in the palace, under the Rubens paintings, for the presidential perusal were notes by George Washington and George III, a letter by Abraham Lincoln and two copies of the original edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Not forgetting a 19th-century volume of John James Audubon's Birds of America, in double elephant-sized folio, one of the most valuable books of the world: if you want to buy it, the going rate at auction is $11m.

Nothing quite like that in the exchange of gifts: the Queen gave the Obamas leather-bound facsimiles of the presidential letters in the royal collection, with an antique gold-and-red coral brooch for the first lady. In return Obama, evidently learning from the slight hiatus over his trifling gift of DVDs to Gordon Brown, gave the Queen a collection of photographs from her parents' visit to Washington in 1939 – the first to the US by a reigning British monarch. The duke received a gift perhaps qualifying for the response "you shouldn't have": horseshoes, bits and shanks of equipage from the US champion carriage driving team, engraved with the presidential seal. It was probably the thought that counted.

The royal party, fresh from lunch, were clearly in relaxed mood as they entered the gallery, the Queen pointing out the exhibits as an 85-year-old might show off her begonias. "Jane – you explain," she instructed Lady Jane Roberts, the librarian at Windsor Castle, who had selected the exhibits.

Get any awkwardness out of the way first: a letter from Washington about the surrender of British troops at Yorktown at the end of the war of independence. Beside it, George III's neatly written note, agonising over the loss of the colonies: "America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow?" Spirits evidently rising, he concluded perceptively: "A people spread over an immense part of fertile land, industrious because free and rich because industrious, presently becomes a market for the manufactures and commerce of the mother country." He didn't add, as one of his negotiators of the peace treaty did, "And everyone of 'em speaking English."

"That was just a temporary blip in the relationship," said Obama, looking down genially.

They made their way slowly round the gallery, the Queen murmuring, "Interesting" at Lady Jane's commentary, while examining her fingernails. The duke cheerfully turned the pages of the Audubon to show Mrs Obama, ruffling them as if they were a paperback.

There was some chuckling at a letter, written from Washington during the 1939 tour, by the Queen's mother to "My Darling Lilibet" describing a picnic luncheon: "All our food on one plate – a little salmon, some turkey, some ham, lettuce, beans and HOT DOGS too!"

It was a pity they scarcely had time to glance at the handwritten letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Queen Victoria in February 1862, in the middle of the civil war, after learning of the death of Prince Albert. He sympathised with his "Great and Good Friend" over the overwhelming affliction that had befallen her: "I would fain have your Majesty apprehend … that real sympathy can exist, as real truthfulness can be practised, in the intercourse of nations..." Three years later Victoria was writing to Lincoln's widow, following the president's assassination: "Though a stranger to you, I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you," and Mary Lincoln was writing back in anguish about "the intense grief I now endure."

Protocol directs that after a reciprocal banquet at the US ambassador's residence, the Queen and duke will bid farewell to their guests, who then return to the palace for a further night. Perhaps they will leave the cornflakes out for the morning, with a note for the Obamas to help themselves.


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The oiled west: Obama to see Americana from Queen's art collection

The president will be shown artistic treasures that reveal British enthusiasm for all things American down the years

It is a custom of state visits for the Queen to show the visiting dignitary a specially chosen selection of highlights that may be of interest to them and their nation from her extraordinary collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and objets d'art.

The Royal Collection is one of the last surviving examples of monarchical collections, which in most countries have long since become part of public museums; from a historical point of view, it is the finest collection in the world, with treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and Holbein's portrait studies.

Barack Obama will get a personal view of it this afternoon in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace, where he will see paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Titian. Among these masterpieces, he will see a special "American" display.

This may seem unpromising – after all, the monarchy lost America back in the 18th century – but in fact the Royal Collection has a fascinating haul of Americana in among its Leonardos.

Indeed, this art collection tells of British enthusiasm down the centuries for all things American, offering plenty of material for a presidential private view.

Admittedly, one of the greatest royal collectors was George III, whose reign was marked by British defeat in the revolutionary war and loss of the British empire's richest colony. And it is true that the collection includes a Tarleton cap, a piece of military headgear named after Banastre Tarleton, who was one of the most hated and feared British officers in the attempt to suppress the revolution. Yet the Queen's collection reveals that subsequent monarchs soon fell in love with the young republic.

And that really doesn't seem too strong a description of Queen Victoria's passion for the wild west. One of the most evocative American images in the Royal Collection is a photograph of Buffalo Bill that she purchased as a souvenir of her favourite frontiersman.

It shows the famous hunter and scout posing with his rifle, long hair and cowboy hat, and wearing a leather tunic in the style of a Plains Indian. It was taken in 1892, the year the Queen enjoyed a special performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Windsor Castle. This was the second time she had seen the show. She praised Buffalo Bill, real name William Cody, as "a splendid man, handsome and gentlemanlike".

She also commissioned Sir Edwin Landseer's 1839 painting Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals, a richly oiled canvas of a man lying calmly among wild beasts, after she watched this American lion tamer perform on seven occasions that year. Queen Victoria had a special relationship with American tough guys, it would seem from her art collecting.

You can chart the cultural history of two continents from this venerable art collection. The Royal Collection dates back to the age when, in European eyes, much of North America was untamed wilderness. Some of the oldest images of America that it holds depict exotic flora and fauna of the new world, such as Mark Catesby's picture of an American bison, looking like a survivor of the Ice Age, dating from the early 18th century.

America in the early 1700s was above all seen as a natural sphere of study, a new world to catalogue, in the eyes of the Royal Collection, which also includes Catesby's studies of a skunk and a bald eagle. But by the 1770s, America was producing its own artists. George III appointed the Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West as history painter to the court; West's 1771 masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe is one of the highlights of the Royal Collection. He in turn persuaded the King to make use of a fellow American, John Singleton Copley, to portray the Hanoverian princesses.

So the years that saw the American Revolution also saw American artists working directly for the monarchy, for the simple reason that an art scene did not yet exist as such in Boston or New York. Soon, though, American culture would become proudly self-conscious, and the flora and fauna once studied as objects of curiosity by Europeans would be rediscovered by American romantics as the essence of a new nationhood.

Another photograph collected by Queen Victoria is a portrait of the poet Henry Longfellow, seen in his day as the great national American bard, by Julia Margaret Cameron. Longfellow's 19th-century epic poem Hiawatha draws on Native American myth to imagine the continent in its innocence, as a place where humanity lived in accord with nature. Queen Victoria apparently loved Hiawatha as well as Buffalo Bil, if her purchase of this photo is anything to go by.

In the Royal Collection, there is plenty to fascinate American eyes. It offers a romantic vision of the new world, cultivated by rulers and former rulers who dreamed of it from afar.


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May 13 2011

The resurrection of religious art

The trees placed in Westminster Abbey for the royal wedding were typical of how modern artists are transforming churches

Recently, 27 million British television viewers enjoyed the beauty of a medieval church, gasped at its soaring nave, cooed at its gothic vaulting. But the spectacle of Westminster Abbey, the venue for the royal wedding, was enhanced by an unexpected modern touch: trees. Trees in themselves are not modern, obviously – in fact, the architecture of medieval churches and cathedrals may originate in the ancient Germanic tribes' feel for the great canopy of branches and leaves in primeval European forests. But the idea of bringing trees into Westminster Abbey was definitely modern: a bit of spontaneous royal installation art that echoed the tree-planting activities of the German artist Josef Beuys.

Those trees made a superb impact. They opened our eyes to the grandeur of a medieval building that might otherwise have struck television viewers as just a dark, lofty old bulwark of church and state. But the wedding trees – and now everyone will want their own – were not unique. They were actually typical of the way religious buildings are experimenting with modern art. At Salisbury Cathedral right now you can see a sculpture by Antony Gormley called Flare II, whose explosive abstract energy draws attention to the exhilaration of this great building's slender spire, which pierces the sky and reaches towards heaven itself. Meanwhile at St Paul's Cathedral, which also showed Flare II last year, video artist Bill Viola is working on a permanent installation using giant plasma screens, set to open in early 2012.

Viola is the high priest, as it were, of the new religious art. In 1996, he created The Messenger for Durham Cathedral; it went on to tour other religious venues in Britain. He does not need to adapt his work to fit into holy settings. His films are always religious, using simple images such as water, candles and the human figure to portray spiritual crises and profound moments poised between life and death. He is one of the best artists of our time.

But how many Bill Violas are there? Perhaps it is troubling that, in searching for a great new work of religious art, St Paul's Cathedral has commissioned the same man who drew attention to the power of new religious art with his Durham commission 15 years ago. Don't get me wrong – they are right to do so. But perhaps the move also reflects a recognition that modern religious artists are not exactly two a penny, and that putting just any piece of contemporary art in a cathedral is no guarantee of a powerful aesthetic or spiritual experience. Cathedrals are sublime works of art in their own right, and it takes an incisive and at the same time respectful piece to genuinely add to their glories.

You could say it takes a forest – for the trees of Westminster Abbey showed how an imaginative, poetic gesture can enhance such a setting. Bill Viola, meanwhile, shows us that modern art can be both simple enough and spectacular enough to emulate the altarpieces of the past. Whatever your beliefs, or lack of them, Britain's cathedrals and churches are aesthetic treasure vaults. The purpose of contemporary interventions is to unlock them.


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April 30 2011

How royal wedding photographer Hugo Burnand tackled 'gig of the century'

William and Kate 'respect where they are and still show love', says official photographer

The photographer who took the official pictures of William and Kate's wedding said he hoped they portrayed the love that everyone felt on the big day.

"From where I was, and from their point of view, it was two families coming together and that was the feeling, the sense of family and love going between everyone," Hugo Burnand said. "They had their own buzz. Everyone had their own buzz. It was that excitement that I hope you feel at most weddings."

Burnand said he had only seconds to set up his favourite photograph, of the newlyweds with the bridesmaids and pageboys, having coaxed the children with promises of jelly beans and sweets.

"When you look at those individual children in that picture you are seeing those children and their characters," he said. "That's the same with the bride and groom in the middle of the picture as well. That's really them. There's no time for direction."

Burnand said Kate was a keen photographer herself and he discussed the images with her and William beforehand. Asked about the mood between the couple, he said: "Fantastic. I don't know what to say – I love them. They are so bloody nice. They are just so nice as individuals and as a pair, and they work so well together."

He said of the formal portrait of them standing side by side: "In a way what I really like about that picture is that it is formal and it shows their respect for the formality, where they are, who they are. They understand and respect where they are and yet you can still see a smile and love between them.

"At the same time they are right side by side with each other and they are connected and they are touching, their arms are connected and they've got a smile on their face. That picture really sums up a lot about them."

Burnand was accompanied by assistants including his mother, the photographer Ursy Burnand, 71, who is praised as be an invaluable member of his team. "It was the gig of the century," he said.


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April 29 2011

The best British palaces

From Henry VIII's kitchens to relics of George III's incarceration, here's where to go to do some right royal sightseeing

If you are swept up by this week's royal wedding festivities, are in the London area, and would like to do some right royal sightseeing this weekend, there are plenty of cultural riches to seek out in Britain's royal palaces (once you stomach the entrance fees). In fact, these historic royal residences are very well kept, with great gardens, souvenirs and catering, and make perfect destinations for families. Here are some of the highlights.

Hampton Court is the most awe-inspiring surviving palace and the best place to imagine the lost Tudor glories of Nonesuch, Whitehall and Greenwich palaces. Henry VIII's kitchens are its most popular indoor attraction, and they get across the feasting abundance of his court. Outside, the Maze is another echo of Renaissance times. But what is less well-known is the fine selection from the Royal Collection that can be seen here, including paintings by Holbein, tremendous tapestries, works by Rubens and Titian, and, in the Orangery, Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar.

Yet the quirkier palaces also contain delights. Kensington Palace has been turned into a fairytale installation by fashion designers while parts of it are closed for restoration. The playful scenarios conjured up are a lot of fun, and do not get in the way of artistic treasures that range from carvings by Grinling Gibbons to a painting by Giorgio Vasari. There is also a lovely Dutch garden.

At Kew Palace, which you can visit as part of Kew Gardens, the character of George III comes through strongly – and in the end, tragically. Downstairs, a display of 18th-century satirical prints evokes the image of "Farmer George", the conscientious king who did so much to make a modern monarchy at the time of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The small modest "palace" itself suggests his professionalised idea of monarchy. But as you go higher in the building, restored rooms give way to raw ancient wood and plaster in the spaces inhabited by the daughters he would not allow to marry – and finally you contemplate relics of his incarceration due to what his doctors called "madness".

But if you really want to delve in to the darker side of royal history, make for the Tower of London. Here, too, are cultural treasures – including the armour of Henry VIII, with decoration by Holbein, and the beautiful Norman chapel in the White Tower that is a simple, cool masterpiece of the Romanesque style. Yet the most haunting works of art for many visitors will be the crosses, astrological signs and plaintive words inscribed in stone walls by prisoners in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Royal Britain is full of surprises. These well-maintained palaces are crowded with great art and compelling history. Enjoy.


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April 28 2011

Republican art rules OK

The royal wedding will showcase Westminster Abbey, but it is under republics, not monarchies, that artists flourish the most

The cultural heritage of the British monarchy is about to go on display all over the world as screens glow with the architectural and sculptural grandeur of Westminster Abbey. Founded in the 10th century, loaded with new marvels down the ages of which the most sublime is surely the chapel of Henry VII with its filigree fan vaulting, this royal abbey church is the best example anyone could ever adduce to support the contention that British culture is profoundly beholden to and involved in the regal tradition.

But in the history of European art, monarchy cannot claim all the masterpieces. On the contrary, republics and republicans have created some of the most dynamic and brilliant works of art of all time.

There's a clue to this fact in Westminster Abbey itself, in the Chapel of Henry VII. The setting is medieval in flavour and very English. But the tomb has putti that visibly come from Italy: it was created by the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, who came to London from Florence. In fact, Torrigiano was trained in sculpture alongside Michelangelo, and broke his famous rival's nose in a teenaged fight. In 16th-century Italy, he was notorious as the thug who disfigured Michelangelo. In Tudor Britain he was valued as someone who could give it a taste of the most modern, dynamic culture in Europe.

So the British royal family imported Italian Renaissance art to Westminster Abbey. But the civilisation of the Italian Renaissance that it coveted was, however, obsessed with republicanism. The Renaissance started in cities that freed themselves from outside rule in the middle ages. The ideal these cities believed in was republican self-rule. In practice, most of them fell prey to despots – but the most brilliant tried to be republics. Venice ruled itself as a republic until the age of Napoleon, and its art, from Tintoretto's Paradise in the Doge's Palace to Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan in the National Gallery, is profoundly coloured by the unique cultural politics of the Most Serene Republic.

Florence, where Torrigiano came from, had a much less stable history. Where Venetian republicanism endured the centuries, the politics of Florence were bloody. The Medici family established de facto rule over the Republic, but they were deposed in 1494, violently restored nearly two decades later, and overthrown again in 1527 only to crush their enemies with tens of thousands of deaths in the Siege of Florence in 1529-30.

It is the history of Florence that should give cultural conservatives pause for thought. In Florence, from Donatello's Judith right through to Michelangelo's David, the most influential masterpieces of the Renaissance expressed the ideal of republican citizenship. Not only that: after the Medici finally defeated this ideal and became quasi-monarchical dukes, art in the city went into decline. The later Medici let their city become an artistic backwater compared with its great days. The city's artistic fire died with the Republic.

Artistic revolution happens in republics, you could reasonably conclude. The greatest artists flourish in free states far from the corruption of kings.

Meanwhile in Britain, the monarchical tradition has survived longer and more floridly than most other places. It is also a fact that of all the grandest European cultures we have the weakest tradition of visual art. In France, the Revolution inspired David. In Spain, the republican cause in the Civil War moved Picasso. Art does not flourish in monarchies, or to put it another way, in Italy they had republican ideals and they produced Donatello, Titian, the Renaissance. In Britain we've had thousands of years of hereditary monarchy and (since the Abbey) what has that produced? The souvenir mug.


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April 21 2011

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