‘My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person,’ said Andy Warhol, the artist who understood better than anyone the cult of celebrity and the allure of an image. He was the Pop artist who made art out of what people desired most: money, power and fame.
Central to Warhol’s output were his portraits of screen idols — those whose recognition could survive Warhol’s irreverent manipulations: Liz Taylor with acid-green eye makeup, Marilyn Monroe degraded to a black smudge, Elvis Presley triple-exposed in silver.
He was good at mythologising a person, heightening their remoteness so that they appeared unchanging and perfect — even when painted an electric sage blue. It didn’t take long before pop stars and socialites were rocking up at his Factory door, eager to be immortalised in banana yellow and lilac.
However, there were some public figures who remained unobtainable to Warhol’s hustle. One was Queen Elizabeth II, whom the Guinness Book of Records called the most recognisable person in the world.
Warhol desperately wanted to make a painting of her, and in 1982 his European dealer George Mulder wrote to the monarch’s private secretary, Sir William Heseltine, requesting permission to use the Queen’s portrait in a set of four screenprints.
The response from the Palace was guarded, but not dismissive. ‘The Queen would certainly not wish to put any obstacles in Mr Warhol’s way,’ wrote Heseltine; but he added that ‘she would not dream of offering any comment on this idea’.
Having got the green light, Warhol set to work, creating the cheekily titled Reigning Queens series featuring Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. Two editions in various colour-ways were made: the ‘Royal Edition’ of 30 prints, and the ‘Standard Edition’ of 40. The Royal Edition prints were sprinkled with fine particles of crushed glass that glittered in the light like diamonds.
The heightened colours and exaggerated details are reminiscent of a series Warhol had made a decade earlier of New York drag queens, titled Ladies and Gentlemen.
‘There is a degree of irreverence and admiration in the paintings,’ says Murray Macaulay, head of Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘Warhol dances a wonderful line between respect and impudence. Some of the portraits are incredibly camp — in one of them the Queen is a bubblegum disco pink.’
On 1 July two highly coveted ‘diamond dust’ prints of the Queen by Warhol will be offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Sale at Christie’s in London. The images are based on a photograph of the monarch taken by Peter Grugeon at Windsor Castle on 2 April 1975, and released for the Silver Jubilee in 1977.
According to Macaulay, not only are the works in wonderful condition, but they were also made at a time when Warhol’s printing techniques had become highly sophisticated. ‘He uses matt and gloss inks in such interesting ways. He’s working with Rupert Jasen Smith — one of the great screenprinters of the time — and it is that partnership that takes Warhol’s work to a totally different level.’
On completion, Mulder sent photographs of the prints to the Palace. ‘I think Warhol hoped the Queen might consider buying one,’ says Macaulay. Heseltine replied that the Queen was ‘most pleased and interested to see’ the portraits.
‘I love the difference in tone between the two letters,’ says the specialist. ‘That initial suspicion gives way to a warmer response. You get the idea the Queen rather liked them, probably because they were so different to what other artists had done.’
The artist got his wish 30 years later, when the Royal Collection purchased four prints from the Royal Edition to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. They are the only portraits of her in the collection that the Queen did not sit for.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘Warhol always said he wanted to be as famous as the Queen of England,’ says Macaulay. ‘I think he would have been delighted his prints ended up in her collection.’