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From portraits to pop: how the Queen has become Britain's best-known cultural icon

Her Majesty is instantly recognisable

queen as cultural icon
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The hair, the handbag, the unchanging profile – the Queen's features are instantly recognisable shorthand for the best of British. While she would never regard herself as a mistress of spin, our remarkable monarch has created the most potent of personal brands, one that has inspired artists from Andy Warhol to Lucian Freud. Not to mention fashion designers and filmmakers. Director Danny Boyle even made her the star of his 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, persuading her to perform a brilliant cameo opposite Daniel Craig's Bond, which saw her grandsons roaring their approval, cheering: "Go Granny!"

Her uniquely long reign has coincided with the rise of modern pop culture. So each successive generation views the Queen through the prism of their own concerns. As Her Majesty turns 94 on 21 April, we look at this colourful cultural legacy.

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Professor Sir David Cannadine, chairman of the National Portrait Gallery, describes the Queen as "the most portrayed woman in history". She's on our coins and banknotes, and her patrician profile is so identifiable that British stamps are apparently the only ones in the world that don't need to have the country of origin printed on them.

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In her 68-year reign, Elizabeth II has sat for around 200 portraits, starting with Cecil Beaton's gloriously dreamy record of the coronation in 1953. Holding the jewel-encrusted Sovereign's Sceptre and Orb with the Bracelets of Sincerity and Wisdom circling her wrists, the new Queen, then only 25, combined regal splendour with youthful radiance.

andy warhol and the queen© Photo: Getty Images

Andy Warhol was inspired by the monarch

Just as charming many years later was when she posed for Annie Leibovitz with her young grandchildren and great-grandchildren to celebrate her 90th birthday. The tender portrait reflected the importance to the Queen of family and alluded to the passing on of the baton to a new generation as Princess Anne's tiny granddaughter, Mia Tindall, grabbed the famous handbag. The American photographer had first captured the British sovereign in 2007 ahead of her state visit to the White House during the presidency of George W Bush.

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The Queen may not be a spin doctor, but her choice of photographer is never incidental. She was well aware that sitting for Annie, who's also photographed Miley Cyrus and the Rolling Stones and took the last ever picture of John Lennon hours before he died, would attract attention to her US trip. Although she refused Annie's request to capture her on horseback inside the State Apartments, the images are still among the most striking ever taken of her.

the queen painting© Photo: Getty Images

Lucian Freud painted the Queen wearing a stern expression

She did give free reign to one of Britain's greatest ever artists, Lucian Freud, who offered to paint the Queen as a gift and committed her to canvas wearing a stern expression. Executed in his intense, penetrating style, the work divided the press and art critics. The Times described his oeuvre as "painful, brave, honest, stoical and, above all, clear sighted", but the verdict of Arthur Edwards, the elder statesman of the royal press corps, was: "Freud should be locked in the Tower for this."

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It's easy to imagine then what he thinks of Alison Jackson, who uses lookalikes to create scenes of famous people. So realistic are they you're forced to do a double take. In one we see the Queen heading for the cashpoint with the corgis in tow, in another changing Prince George's nappy. Yet another has her having a wash and set at the hairdressers decked out in full regalia and accompanied by Camilla and Kate. "One makes the people into objects, which is delicious as a viewer, because then you can just fantasise," is how Alison explains her work. "You can project your own fantasies onto the performer."

the queen as street art© Photo: Rex

She has acted as a patron for many artists

Her tongue-in-cheek depictions owe a lot to 1980s satirical puppet show Spitting Image, which showed the royal matriarch being uncharacteristically impatient with subjects, yawning or even shouting while on public engagements. This less than reverential body of work begun with punk iconoclast Jamie Reid, who showed her with a safety pin through her lip, an image that famously made its way onto a Vivienne Westwood T-shirt. He was also commissioned by the Sex Pistols to provide the artwork for their 1977 single God Save the Queen. What was shockingly rebellious then, seems tame, even affectionate, now, a sign of how deeply intertwined the monarchy is with the British popular imagination. Nearly four decades later, the Sex Pistols cover was included in a Diamond Jubilee exhibition, while legendary graffiti artist Banksy paid his own homage to Her Majesty that year, with a mural depicting her as pop icon Ziggy Stardust.

the queen as ziggy© Photo: Rex

A mural depicting Her Majesty as pop icon Ziggy Stardust

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The work of artists like these - and street painter Pegasus, who daubed the Queen as a racy pin-up with high heels on a bar door in Islington - says more about us than about her. This was certainly the meaning behind the Jubilee exhibition, which, said curator Paul Moorhouse, explored "how changing images of the Queen act as a kind of lens through which to see changes in our society and changes in artistic values".

the queen in islington© Photo: Rex

The Queen as a racy pin-up with high heels on a bar door in Islington

Her Majesty posed for Justin Mortimer in 1998 after Princess Diana's death as part of a bid to project a more modern image. Just as she sought to renew her relationship with us, we sought to understand the monarchy as an institution and the burdens placed on her as an individual. Hence the slew of productions such as The Queen, a film about the week of Diana's death; The Audience, a stage play taking viewers inside her weekly meetings with Prime Ministers, and Netflix hit series The Crown. Such is their popularity that Prince William joked at the BAFTA awards: "I'm alarmed by how many winners of the past decade have portrayed members of my own family."

Perhaps the most intriguing impact the sovereign has had is on the world of fashion. Whenever you see a homage to British heritage style, a catwalk show with models in silk scarves or country casual glam, you're likely to picture the Queen. This was the case with Dolce & Gabbana's 2008 Autumn collection and 2018 London Fashion Week, to which the sovereign herself gave a seal of approval by sitting in the front row of Richard Quinn's show.

the queen stamps© Photo: Getty Images

She is one of the most recognised women in the world

"The Queen is one of the most quirky people in the world," says Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele. "She is very inspiring. It is clear that she loves colour." Her brand of bold power dressing has recently made a comeback, with Michelle Obama, Melania Trump, the Duchess of Cambridge and even Meghan's farewell wardrobe all showing an explosion of colour.

In her twilight years, having lived up to her obligation to act as a patron for artists and an inspiration for the nation, the Queen is willing to share her less serious side. When dresser Angela Kelly suggested a more informal photoshoot her royal boss readily agreed and posed with her hands daringly in her pockets. Likewise when Prince Harry requested his grandmother's help in a Twitter face off with the Obamas ahead of the Invictus Games. His mic drop at the end said it all: the Queen knows her power as an authority figure and secretly relishes having fun with her image too.

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