Bargain basement royal portraiture

This is the portrait of an intelligent, thoughtful and educated sitter with no less than a degree in art history. It is perfectly adequate for the boardroom of a supermarket but entirely inadequate for a national collection. Kate deserves better. We deserve better too, and so does the future.

This commission – Kate’s first official portrait – demanded an artist, not a slavish and banal illustrator and certainly not the bargain basement of royal portraiture. It is an artless mistake that should have been foreseeable by those who commissioned it. Emsley was the wrong painter. He is essentially a wildlife artist used to painting every hair on a gorilla. We have fine portrait painters in this country – Ben Sullivan, Phil Hale, Stuart Pearson Wright and Paul Benney among them. Any of these artists would have produced something more taxing, deeper, and interesting than this. We could have been surprised by an artist with something to say.

We are not asking for any surreal or bizarre interpretation but merely for something beyond a bog-standard likeness. This is the most bland and predictable royal portrait in living memory. It is the sort of safe, uncomplicated, pedestrian image one might expect to see in a high street photographer’s window. It looks as if the painter asked the subject to “Say cheese!” and then told her to scram and buy some clothes while he painted the photograph.

It would have been cheaper and more honest to exhibit a photograph; indeed this portrait adds nothing that we didn’t already know from a million photographs. Even her smile is half-hearted.  There is neither character nor personality here beyond the obvious. Neither is there gravitas, profundity or any sense of narrative. Instead it is the image we see repeated daily in our newspapers and magazines.

Saving grace? It is not by Rolf Harris.

David Lee

The Jackdaw January 2013