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The Matriarch and the Mirrors.

Green Drawing RoomTHE DAYS OF large and lavish portraits of aristocrats with their families are long gone, but for the British Royal Family, the camera serves just as well, if not better. A well-arranged shot, taken at the right moment and in the choicest colours, can find its way around the world in a short space of time, and enter the imagination of a global public, complete with its subliminal messages. For the Queen’s ninetieth birthday the photographer Annie Leibovitz was hired to play the part of the artist and leave us a set of images that would fix the idea of the monarch both in the moment and in the greater stream of time known as tradition.

The photograph taken in what is known as the Green Drawing Room in Windsor Castle amply fulfils these criteria (to enlarge the image, click on it). The Queen sits at the centre of her brood of grandchildren and great grandchildren, Matriarch not just of the her own family but of the whole nation. There’s not a little irony in the fact that in these days when the more unhinged members of the left are frothing about the patriarchy we have here a public celebration of family and motherhood in its most traditional and positive manifestation: the birthing and nurturing of generations.

The setting is important also. The room is named as it is, with unfussy directness, because of its verdant wallpaper and furniture. That greenness sets up the suggestion of a double image: the sitters are indoors but also in an ersatz outdoors, an interior greenwood, perhaps, the upright lamps and their shades clustered like small trees above them. It plays on the idea of the countryside as an integral part of the national identity at all levels, but especially at the top of society with its country houses. This room is the kind of chamber millions visit every year on visits around the country.

The love of the country house has become a kind of minor cult in Britain, where numerous sites of pilgrimage are visited so people can remind themselves of the changing relationship between wealth, power and society within a tacitly accepted sense of shared identity. As Orwell (of course) realised, the whole thing about class in Britain is all to do with the nation as a family. And there are plenty of grumpy republicans who visit country houses, muttering about the privilege of the upper classes and the oppression of the poor, while still enjoying the gardens, the furniture and the paintings and imagining themselves into the position of the aristos.

The architecture of the monarchy thus continues green and gold from the past on into the future…past the present incumbents and onwards, the mirrors themselves curiously empty of people…

BEHIND THE QUEEN and the children a tall mirror reflects the mirror on the opposite wall, itself behind the photographer and the viewer, with a clock on the mantelpiece, creating a series of rectangular self reflections that diminish down to the right hand side just above the head of the Queen and her granddaughter, Savannah. The architecture of the monarchy thus continues green and gold from the past on into the future, from behind the artist-photographer, past the present incumbents and onwards, the mirrors themselves curiously empty of people as if to symbolise the greater significance of the institution over the individuals within it.

Little Mia Tindall stands to the left of the picture, proudly holding the Queen’s handbag by its handles, high up on her chest. It may look like an unfussy, dutiful handbag but the Mail has assured us that it’s a £1,000 item from Launer. The Queen herself is wearing sensible shoes as my mother would have said. Informal clothing: a white blouse, plaid skirt, a cardigan. And on her lap is her youngest great grandchild, Princess Charlotte. Irrespective of her wealth and status she embodies here the desire of all mothers: that they become grandmothers at least.

Most of the children are dressed in modern casual: particularly Viscount Severn, eight years old, who stands to the left in a pair of dark brown trousers over a pair of brown shoes; his open-necked pale blue shirt not creased, exactly, but loose, with folds that make it look like he is wearing braces. His head is tilted slightly to one side and he has his hands in his pockets, in a pose that indicates patient compliance with duty and comfortable self-confidence at the same time.

Prince George, on the other hand, standing to the right, looks directly at the photographer without his usual cheeky grin, attentive and for the moment obedient, as if waiting for a signal to begin the fun. He wears very old-fashioned short trousers (the kind that went out of fashion when I was a child), socks, cardigan and a round-collared shirt. To his left is three-year-old Isla, also more traditionally dressed, in a pleated skirt, cardigan and frilly socks. Cardigans are definitely are in with the Royals.

It’s not just the dress that indicates how the family combine traditional and modern when they like. It’s also the names. Louise, George and Charlotte are sound and old-fashioned. Mia, Isla and Savannah are definitely not. The British aristocracy have never been the complete inbred chinless wonders they’re so often lampooned as being: they’ve always infused their stock with fresh DNA from the lower orders, even if it means putting up with the fashionable names they bring.

Brought together for this portrait the group forms a rough triangle whose longest line slopes down from the left to the right, replicating the mirrored mirrors behind them. The most noticeable object that stands in the reflections is a clock. It is there to one side above the Queen’s head. Time is there always, the moments passing irrevocably; but in a continuum, linking past, present and future. This is how the monarchy has survived: accepting the change of tradition, and the tradition of change, cardigans and all.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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