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Monday, August 8, 2022

Bringing the Royal Portrait into the 21st Century

Catharine, Duchess of Cambridge, previously known as Kate Middleton, the commoner-turned-royal who is married to Prince William and the mother of a future king, has reached the age of 40. In celebration of the occasion, three new portraits have been shown to the public. They will be on exhibition in three places before becoming part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, where they will be preserved for future generations.

The Catherine portraits, which were taken by Paolo Roversi, the Vogue photographer known for his soft-focus time-out-of-time style and high romanticism, show the duchess in three different Alexander McQueen gowns — a choice that not only ticks the box of wearing British, but also continues Catherine’s relationship with Sarah Burton, the designer who created her wedding gown. In accordance with British Vogue, the outfits, which were custom-made for the duchess using fabric leftover from past McQueen designs, were produced from recycled materials, lending a sense of environmental responsibility to the shoot.

There are two black and white photographs: one shows her seated in profile, gazing elegantly into the distance, and wearing an off-the-shoulder gown with bows falling from shoulders; the other shows her wearing a ruffled one-shoulder top, facing the camera and beaming. In the third image, which is in colour, she is dressed in a crimson taffeta dress with a large puffed sleeve reminiscent of the ’80s, her hands in her pockets, and she is smiling.

Her hair is left free, somewhat dishevelled, and windblown throughout the whole look. In contrast to her clothing, she wears minimum makeup and maximum earrings, which she obtained from the collections of her mother-in-law Princess Diana and her grandmother-in-law Queen Elizabeth II. Her earrings are as dramatic as her dresses. Her sapphire engagement ring is proudly displayed on her finger. When seen as portraits, they are neither forcefully contemporary nor stiffly old-fashioned, despite the fact that their composition seems to have been designed for use on a mood board. She wears her glitz and glitter with a casual attitude.

With the departure of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to California, their Oprah Winfrey interview, and the impending shadow of Prince Harry’s biography, they are the latest volley in a narrative about the development of the House of Windsor that has gotten more tense in recent months. It’s more like a salve for the roiled waters of royal life; a dignified acceptance, bathed in the sepia tones of fairy-tale escapism, of the duties of joining “the Firm,” rather than a rejection. Not to mention the fact that the spotlight has been reclaimed.

Moreover, they stand in stark contrast to the most recent Meghan and Harry photograph: the determinedly laid-back, old jeans and barefeet California-cool family snap that served as the Sussexes’ Christmas card and that appeared to be a direct riposte to the stultifying formality and strictures of the life they had just fled. Take a look at how delighted we are now that we are able to be ourselves!

When viewing the Roversi portraits, Catherine’s clothing and poses appear to be a nod to previous royal portraits, whether it is Princess Margaret, captured by Cecil Beaton in 1949 at the age of 19, Princess Diana, captured by Mario Testino, or the queen herself, photographed with her hands in her pockets on the cover of a book published in 2019. Nonetheless, they evoke images of Disney princesses from the collective unconscious. When you look at them, it’s not difficult to envision Catherine waltzing away with a candelabra or some animated mice in her lap, her skirts fluttering in the breeze.

Throughout them, she is portraying a queen consort, an avatar of fantasy, and someone who has the ability to bring fantasy to the real world. It’s a fine line to walk between the two extremes.

The result is a connection between the past and the present; the continuity is preserved while a light gloss of modern values is applied to it. To provide an explanation for the ongoing existence of the position, as well as a case for the significance of the second generation who will inherit it, while injecting a dash of levity into the proceedings.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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