Kate and the curse of the Royal portraits

Their historic forebears may have had a few dubious run-ins, but more recently the Royal Family has been utterly cursed when it comes to Royal potraits

Paul Emsley's impression of how Kate will appear in 2023?
Mark Wallace
On 11 January 2013 14:53

The path of Royal portraits does not always run smooth. Yes, there are the magnificent, domineering classics like Holbein's lost and much-copied Henry VIII, but there are also those blighted by egotism, which famously forced even van Dyck to cover up Charles I's shortness by portraying him as a lunatic who rides horses indoors.

More recently, a new problem has cropped up. Whereas their historic forebears were always at minimum portrayed with competence, lately the Royal art collection has suffered from what can only be called cack-handedness.

Memorably, the jovial idea of asking Rolf Harris to immortalise the Queen on canvas resulted in a weird portrayal that left Her Majesty looking like she was wearing a grill, rather than her own teeth.

It’s not that Rolf Harris isn’t a good painter – despite the snooty huffs of the art establishment, he is clearly more than capable of producing beautiful work. No, it seems the House of Windsor has fallen under a curse which means even great artists feel compelled to do something bizarre to their faces.

Even Lucian Freud’s monarchical work seems to be a portrait of the Queen’s Spitting Image doll rather than of the actual subject.

What brought the curse on, no-one knows. Presumably the Duke of Edinburgh told an ill-advised joke about voodoo, or maybe Prince Harry sold his soul in return for some Jägerbombs.

However it came about, it is there; and so I am sad, not surprised, to report that Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, has become its latest victim.

On paper, the artist – Paul Emsley – was a brilliant choice. His portraits in the past have been things of beauty, even when those sitting for them show their vices squarely on their face. Putting a world-famous beauty in front of him should have been the perfect match.

But no. The Sunday Times’ art critic Waldemar Januszczak told the BBC that “her eyes don’t sparkle”. If he was being brutally honest, he would have said that her eyes don’t even line up. If you don’t believe me, just try staring straight back at her. It cannot be done.

Indeed, by painting the Duchess looking in two directions at once, Emsley has achieved the unusual feat of creating a portrait only one of whose eyes follows you around the room.

If she looked like that in real life, then fair enough – warts and all, as Cromwell declared, is what a portrait artist should deliver. But instead he has taken someone we would all recognise in a flash and recorded her as she does not appear in life, decidedly for the worse.

Even Cromwell would have been annoyed if his portrait featured warts that he didn’t have.

Mark Wallace is the author of the popular political blog Crash Bang Wallace

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