The royal family comes to York: stunning portraits on show

27 Feb 2014 @ 10.11 pm
| News

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Click on the image for full detail: Queen Elizabeth II (‘Lightness of Being’) by Chris Levine, 2007 © Chris Levine

jayne-headshotA new exhibition of royal portraits opens at Beningbrough Hall this weekend. YorkMix arts writer Jayne Dwyer was given a preview

Almost as thought provoking as the portraits themselves is the careful and masterful way the images in Royals, Then and Now have been positioned in the halls and gardens of Beningbrough.

I had the great privilege of visiting the display before its grand opening on Saturday (March 1), and encountered the first of the images – Chris Levine’s Queen Elizabeth II (Lightness of Being) as we made our way up to the landing, via the servants’ stairwell.

Whether you are a royalist or not, I guarantee you will be impressed. This lenticular print (a 3D image) is regal in size.

Whilst the original is rather modestly under a metre in height, Beningbrough’s temporary visitor is larger than life and dominates the landing.

What is striking about this portrait, apart from its magnitude, is that it portrays the Queen with her eyes closed.

Levine himself has been quoted as describing the image a “happy accident”. It was one of 200 images taken for an official portrait, and captured her looking serene and meditative, as she rested between shots.

This particular shot has become an iconic image of the era. Even more remarkable, is that this particular image was approved by the Queen.

It pushes the boundaries of official protocol and suggests a sense of trust between the Queen herself and her public.

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Click on the image for more detail. The Royal Family: A Centenary Portrait, 2000 © John Wonnacott / National Portrait Gallery, London

There are several contemporary portraits within the display that contrast with the 18th century paintings; they show the Royal Family more relaxed and in less formal stance, but Levine’s image captures a vulnerability that we have not been privy to before.

The display itself is significant for several other reasons. It includes the first ever public display of Prince George of Cambridge’s official portrait, by Jason Bell; includes the official engagement portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, by Mario Testino, and it marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I (the first monarch of the House of Hanover).

Beningbrough forged a partnership with the National Portrait Gallery back in 1979, and has been the northern home to some of the gallery’s 18th century oil paintings.

These paintings have always sat authentically amongst Beningbrough’s artefacts and within the Baroque architecture

Whilst it may seem like a brave move to introduce contemporary art, marketing and events co-ordinator Jo Parker points out that had Beningbrough remained a family home, it is likely that it would have embraced and displayed more current pieces.

Time will tell if the public will embrace the Andy Warhol prints, which are expected to cause some controversy.

It could be argued that they look a little brash in the saloon. However, this was effectively the “party room” and the place in the house to show off a little.

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Click on the image for more detail. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry by Nicola Jane (‘Nicky’) Philipps, 2009 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Jo is hoping that whatever happens, discussions will be had about their appropriateness in such a setting.

She explained that the word “conversation” has been used prolifically during the meticulous planning of the display.

Unlike the other pieces in the collection, the Queen did not sit for Warhol but was screen printed from a photographic image made in 1977 for the Silver Jubilee. Beningbrough is looking forward to the dialogue about this and other pieces in the collection.

As daring as they are, the four Warhol prints have been brilliantly exhibited in the saloon, hung almost stamp-like and in perfect symmetry (as was the Baroque style) opposite four of the 18th Century portraits, which include a portrait of Handel.

When you visit, you may encounter your first royals in the grounds and gardens. Prince Charles makes an endearing appearance in what seems to be his house coat, as he feeds his chickens.

Hanging the royals… Photograph: Jo Parker / National Trust
Hanging the royals… Photograph: Jo Parker / National Trust

You are likely to enter Beningbrough via the Great Hall, and your first encounter will be the Wonnacott family portrait.

The oil painting is huge and spans two floors of the hall.

The painting appears to be made for the space and there is a sense that this particular artwork might hope to remain here.

Again, there is this paradox as the setting is in a room of the palace, regal and ornate, and yet the family are crowded around a chair, seemingly leaning in to listen to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Harry is a boy in this painting. His ancestor, King George I, who permanently resides here, has been politely moved across the hall.

He is of historical significance in this marking of the anniversary, but for a while, it may be his descendants that take centre stage.


  • Royals: Then And Now features work by internationally renowned artists and photographers including Andy Warhol, John Wonnacott, Chris Levine and Mario Testino. Their work will be on display at the hall from Saturday March 1 until November 2, 2014
  • For more details see the Beningbrough Hall website