Photo Credit: Kevin Miyazaki

Moving Images - British Royal Portraiture and the Circulation of Ideas

Villa Terrace Museum, Milwaukee Wisconsin February 28 - June 2, 2019

Photographs are often perceived as more objective than other representations, which is dangerous. Who produced these images? What purpose do they serve? How do they further an agenda? What has been deliberately included and excluded in the frame?

The bulk of the collection on view, royal presentation portraits, were gifts presented on the occasion of royal visits. Used to strengthen the people's connection to the monarchy, these photographs also presented the sovereign as the head of a "family" of nations - some brutally battered by British colonization - and additionally, in Victoria's day, they served as a cultural feedback loop that reinforced the recently invented role of the middle-class housewife as purifying influence on the household.

Each photograph in the collection truly warrants an in-depth study of its own. What was so intriguing to me about the collection as a whole, however, was that nearly all of photographs had their origin as "presentation photos" - photographs of the royal person, signed by them and presented to a recipient. I was compelled to examine the nature of, the purpose and the production of these images as a form of self-representation.

Stuart Hall reminds us that while one understanding we have of a representation is that it depicts something that is there already, in another understanding we speak of political figures as representing us - in the sense that they take the place of, or stand-in for us.  So, a representation can be something that depicts what is already there, or something that "stands-in" for something else. 

Cultural Media - in this case photographs - represents topics or types of people and situations; the manner of representation is one way that meaning is given to the subject as something that either depicts, or often stands-in for, something else.

The images in this collection of course, do both. Because they are highly staged and manipulated, I would argue that these representations largely serve as a stand-in for not just the sitters, but a range of particular ideas.

The early reign of Queen Victoria saw both the birth of photography as a new media - a burgeoning 19th century mass culture - and the general political and cultural transition of the monarchy as an institution. All of which coincided to make royal self-representation in staged photographs a powerful agent in the formation of social relations between monarchs and their subjects.

The presentation of portraits created connection and relationship with the recipients, especially in the case of signed portraits which, as we know, are more valuable because of the signature. The photograph with signature could be said to carry with it the actual person of the royal, making for a more powerful connection between royal and the person receiving it. Portraits of monarchs in official regalia reminded British subjects of the power of the monarchy and created a connection between the recipient and the idea of the Nation, which the royal represented.

Victoria and Albert won the favor of the general public in part because they also represented themselves as behaving like the middle class, setting an example for their subjects to follow as members of a middle-class nation who could share in power and prosperity, thus creating the idea for, and a sense of, belonging to a national identity.

The portrait of Queen Elizabeth in her ATS uniform performs this same function: reflecting a sober work ethic and seriousness of purpose, unadorned by the frill of medals, her image speaks to the honest and earnest war efforts of the Queen, aligning her with the everyman and woman in Britain during World War II 

Elizabeth's ATS portrait - as with Victoria and Albert's self-representation and all of the portraits on view in Moving Images - is both a mirror of, and a model for, the war efforts of her people. But Elizabeth is doing something more in this image - she also provides a visual cue for the new role of both women and monarchs.

Portraits like these have the ability to move social relations - they are one form of cultural production. As products they are shaped by a network of people, processes and events that influence their making. They not only reflect or stand-in for something, they create and improvise the narratives that form our attitudes toward the world around us.