Portrait of a Lady

Paul Emsley’s attempt at photorealism in his recent portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge has Aggie Torrance unconvinced

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Whether you stand to attention during the National Anthem or enjoy their weddings merely for the extra day off, one cannot deny the presence of the Royal Family. We can celebrate them by lining the streets covered in Union Jacks or we can continue to desperately avoid an antiquated tradition that is increasingly feeling irrelevant. Either way, the media think we’re obsessed (as do I, apparently) and proceed to spend inches and inches of column space discussing, critiquing, complimenting and generally doting upon them.

The most recent addition to the monarchy, the Duchess of Cambridge has experienced a dramatic change from Kate to future Queen. Simultaneously she has had to quickly adapt to the constant presence of photographers and appearing on the front cover of “Hello!” weekly. This attention is only exacerbated by the fact that she’s a demure, attractive and elegant young woman. She’s photographed ruthlessly, whether she’s on a state visit or innocently sunbathing in the south of France. Regardless, she has become one of the most easily recognisable public figures of the Noughties.

This the main reason why I do not envy Paul Emsley’s most recent task: painting the very first portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, which was revealed to the public in the National Portrait Gallery quite recently.

An elegant way to project their image out to their people, monarchs took advantage of their unpublished appearances and used the changeable medium of portraiture to self-indulge or intimidate. Into the 20th Century, however, photography was quickly becoming popular and as a faster and cheaper competitor, a rivalry between the portrait photographer and the portrait painter was formed. Personally, I feel that the two mediums originally sought out to achieve very different things: paint was a means of expression and the photograph, one of documentation. Changes in style and technology had blurred the distinctions between the two but generally this remained true. The distinction between paint and photograph reached its most unclear with the arrival of photo-realism in the 1960s.

Going up against the contemporary Abstract Expressionists, Photo-realism created images that left you unsure: photo or paint? One could see this as a celebration and an acceptance of photography as an artistic form or, as in my mind, as “Anything you can do, I can do better”. Either way, it’s a remarkable style and requires tremendous skill.

No doubt, Emsley’s created a brilliant likeness; it’s unquestionably her. The issue I encountered with the Duchess’ portrait was that, whilst it’s a fine example of photorealism, it’s only slightly missed the mark and with little room for expression or interpretation, photorealism is unforgiving. The eye wants to answer the question “photo or paint?” and in doing so is sharply aware of shortcomings.

She has been aged, according to some critics, by ten years. She looks tired, which is entirely plausible, but it is unlikely to be an intentional effect. It’s almost as if she’s not a mother-to-be but a new mother, struggling with a bawling child. She appears demure, a familiar characteristic but without her iconic, beaming smile. It’s a cold close-up. Vogue-favourite, Mario Testino, photographed William and Catherine on the announcement of their engagement and the direct comparison only worsens my opinion of the recent solo portrait. If we are to see Royal Portraiture as a form of propaganda, propelling a flattering image to the public, this example doesn’t work.

Maybe a more romantic treatment of the paint would have done it for me but as it is, Emsley’s a semitone off.


  1. A better question would be who cares what Aggie Torannce thinks?

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  2. 16 Jan ’13 at 3:14 pm

    Hubris Nemesis

    Who gives a flying fuck what Dan thinks?

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  3. Agatha, you write so seductively that I can really feel every emotion in every word. Even though this is the portrait about a very different lady, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the portrait of you.
    Let me stick it in you!

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  4. 19 Jan ’13 at 1:17 pm

    Pu$$y Warrior

    How dare you use a woman’s writing as an opportunity to get into her pants! Agatha, don’t let him ‘stick it in’ you- with a mind like yours you could do much better than that. Bat on my team and I’ll show you the way.
    Rug munching every day :)

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  5. Dan’s comment would suggest that people actually cared about what he thinks. I “think” that if you cannot be bothered to spell the name of the writer correctly, you shouldn’t bother commenting at all. If you didn’t care about the writer’s opinion, I’m bewildered quite frankly as to why you’d read the article and then make the effort to post such an unintelligent comment!

    Aggie, a very thought-provoking article and an interesting read. Looking forward to reading your future pieces.

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