The Royal family: The evolution of portraiture from dynasty to domesticity

This Mother’s Day, we were reminded of how powerful a photo of the Royal family can be. I am, of course, referring to the photo of Princess Catherine and her children posted by the Prince and Princess of Wales’s Instagram account. The photo has been heavily scrutinised on social media for its obvious signs of alteration; supposedly because Princess Catherine sometimes ‘experiment[s] with editing.’ The photo was probably intended to quash concerns and conspiracy theories about Princess Catherine’s whereabouts since her surgery in January, but it has obviously done the opposite.

As time has gone on, the British public have become accustomed to seeing more intimate images of the domestic lives of the Royal family as they attempt to modernise. However, a mixture of formal and intimate images means the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is more blurred than ever.
The domestication of the royal family is not a recent phenomenon. By considering portraits of the Royal family through history, we can see how this impression of the Royal family as being the ‘nation’s family’ has developed through time.

Portraiture in England began to flourish in the mid fifteenth century. One of the most successful painters of this period was Hans Holbein. He painted ‘The Family of Henry VIII’ in around 1545. The painting shows Henry VIII sat in the middle of the room with his son Edward to his right, and his two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, to his left. The painting also depicts Jane Seymour, despite her having died in 1537, honoured as the mother of Henry’s only legitimate son. Here, we have the first example of royal family portraiture, but there is nothing domestic about this mural. Instead, the portrait clearly emphasises the continuation and stability of the Tudor dynasty through Henry’s three children. 

The Stuart period arguably witnessed the development of more intimate portraits of the Royal family. Anthony van Dyck’s first commission (1632) following his appointment as Court Painter depicts Charles I, his wife Henrietta Maria and their two eldest children. The portrait is noted for the blend of state portraiture and informal family life.  Simon Schama argues that although Stuart royal portraiture emphasised the love between Charles and Henrietta Maria, it also highlighted that the ‘aura of majesty’ was much separate ‘from the hearth and home of common subjects.’  

Johan Zoffany’s painting of Queen Charlotte with her two eldest sons, painted 1764, demonstrates how far Royal family portraiture had evolved in the two hundred years since Holbein’s mural. The painting shows the Queen at her dressing table, playing with her children as a ‘devoted and dutiful mother.’ This is significant as it demonstrates a shift from the dynastic to the domestic. Although the inclusion of the two eldest sons evidently showcases the secure lineage of the family, the informality of the composition, and the inclusion of the dressing table demonstrates that images of Royal family home life were now becoming acceptable.

It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that the first photo of the royal family was taken, in 1844. From the late 1840s to 1899, there exists 44 albums of photos of Queen Victoria’s family – which record informal moments and events. Although the photos were initially intended for private use, in 1869, Queen Victoria allowed a series of more intimate photos of herself and Prince Albert to be published. This, according to the Royal Collection Trust, modified the relationship between the monarch and her subjects, making it ‘closer.’

The development of photography throughout the twentieth century undeniably altered the relationship between the Royal family and the British public, as tabloids and papers began to publish those images that were not approved or orchestrated by the family, or their teams – Prince Harry’s Nazi costume scandal, for example. This latest blunder from the Palace demonstrates the role of the internet in the relations between the monarchy and the public, how a badly edited photo can fuel conspiracy theories and distrust.

To quote Simon Schama, [throughout the twentieth century] it came to be important that the institution should be seen to be the family of families, at once dynastic and domestic, remote and accessible, magical and mundane.’ However, with the growing power of social media, it is obvious that the monarchy is not as ‘magical’ as it could pretend to be in the past. The domestication of the Royal family over time through portraiture and photography has contributed to the de-mystification of the institution: in trying to be more accessible and relatable, they have eroded the glamour and mystique that is fundamental to their existence. No family is perfect, no matter how much they pretend to be. 



Image – Carfax2 via Wikimedia commons 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Our YouTube Channel