With the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to New Zealand, it’s the perfect moment to ask what some of Te Papa’s treasures tell us about our feelings towards royalty. Lorde’s critical and irreverent take on the ‘Royals’ of her mega-hit song runs counter to the overwhelming royalty loyalty of our past history. Back in the 1970s, comedian Bob Hope got lots of laughs when he called ‘God Save the Queen’ New Zealand’s greatest love song. Consistent with this was the enthusiastic response, a generation earlier, to Simon Elwes’s portrait of Queen Mary when it entered the National Art Gallery collection in April 1939.
Keeping the royal show on the road
Queen Mary (1867-1953), whose honorifics include consort of George V and queen of the British dominions beyond the seas, is an unfairly forgotten figure today. Though politically very conservative and like her husband George V a stickler for protocol and correctness, according to her biographer ‘she did more than any member of the royal family in her generation to turn the monarchy into an agency of welfare’. Together with her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, she ‘effectively kept the royal show on the road in the first half of the twentieth century’. Although her manner was admired for its gracious and dignified simplicity, it belonged to a more deferential, pre-feminist era and was far more formal and stiff than what we expect from William and Kate.
Splendour and restraint
As all good portraits should, Simon Elwes’s painting convincingly conveys Queen Mary’s qualities. The impact is enhanced by his deft touch, the dashing brushstrokes and subtle tones, suggesting at once splendour (as it should with a diamond crown), yet restraint. Elwes was part of a dynasty of beautiful and brilliant achievers – his father was a famous tenor singer, while his grandson is A-list actor Cary Elwes of Princess Bride fame. Elwes gave the recently opened National Art Gallery just what its trustees wanted. The Dominion enthused: ‘Her Majesty is upright and alert, wearing her crown and the insignia of her rank, the strong imperious face most faithfully limned, being warmed by the faintest flush with coiffure and crown looking as though they belong’.
Painter of the rich and famous
Elwes was long out of fashion; his cleverness was taken for superficiality. Enjoying an elite client base of the rich and famous didn’t help matters in an egalitarian post-war world. Today – rather like his famous inspiration, John Singer Sargent – his star is beginning to rise again and art historian Frances Spalding calls him ‘greatly respected’. Elwes’s charisma is evident when we compare the Queen Mary portrait with the impeccably executed but emotionally deadly full-length portrait in Te Papa’s collection of King George V, by John St Helier Lander.
The Women of New Zealand
The story behind the painting’s acquisition for the National Art Gallery is fascinating, and particular to its time. It is the gift of ‘the Women of New Zealand’, and the outcome of a fund-raising drive energetically conducted by the Mrs T. C. A. Hislop, wife of the Mayor of Wellington. Women throughout the Dominion were encouraged to make donations not exceeding a shilling each. The total of £771 3s 9d showed, as Mrs Hislop stated at the presentation of the painting to the gallery, that 15,420 women subscribed. She felt ‘proud of the part played by Wellington, which alone found more than 70 per cent of the money’. The commission was long delayed; the abdication crisis of 1936 and the coronation of George VI the following year understandably prevented Queen Mary from finding the time to sit for Elwes. A further problem was that the National Portrait Gallery in London was just ahead in the long queue of patrons wanting such a portrait from him. Graciously, the Gallery yielded its claim to the Women of New Zealand, and today has no such portrait, though a spectacular companion painting of Queen Mary seated against the backdrop of Windsor Castle resides in the Royal Collection.