Royal dignity on canvas: a history of the Princess of Wales in portraiture

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An artist herself, Her Royal Highness knows more than most the symbolic importance of a royal portrait. As Tatler commissions Hannah Uzor’s graceful depiction of the Princess of Wales for its July 2024 cover, we look back on the portraits that have come before

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The nights can be long at St Andrews, but when a young Kate Middleton settled in for an evening of studying in the library, she would have poured over masterpieces by some of history’s greatest painters. And, as every Art History student knows, Kate would have developed a keen awareness of the social, political and aesthetic complexities of portraiture.

Since then, she has become Princess of Wales, future Queen and Britain’s royal star: the woman so many look to for strength, grace and dignity. And as Tatler celebrates the courage of the Princess of Wales with Hannah Uzor’s new portrait, specially commissioned for the July 2024 cover of Tatler, we look back at the official portraits that came before…

Paul Emsley: Portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, 2013

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In January 2013 came BP Portrait award winner Paul Emsley’s Portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, which was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. ‘It was the right choice in the end to have her smiling,’ he said at the time: ‘that’s who she really is… She struck me as enormously open and generous and a very warm person,’ the artist explained.

The South African painted the Princess over a period of three-and-a-half months, with one sitting at Kensington Palace and one at his studio. ‘The Duchess explained that she would like to be portrayed naturally,’ said Emsley at the time: ‘her natural self – as opposed to her official self.’

Indeed, as she looks out from the frame, eyes slightly darkened to match her bottle-green pussy-bow blouse and inky background, Emsley’s Kate is painted with captivating candour. There is, though, a smoky sfumato surface to the canvas, built up through thin layers of oils and glazes, which somewhat divided critics.

When the then-Duchess of Cambridge unveiled the painting, she had been patron of the National Portrait Gallery for just a year. It was the public’s first glimpse of how Kate’s official image would be seen for generations to come. Alastair Adams, president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, described the democratic impulse of the piece. ‘It’s very human – when you look at it, the full face is in front of you, you look straight into the eyes and face,’ said Adams. ‘There are no airs and graces, there’s no background context to allude to success or power – it’s very much on a level of one-to-one with the viewers.’

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Jamie Coreth: The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, 2022

Almost a decade later, Kate stood next to Prince William as she caught a glimpse of her second official portraitThe Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, by Jamie Coreth, is a compositional opposite to the earlier work. Kate, regal in an emerald gown by The Vampire’s Wife, stands arm-in-arm with William, the couple looking slightly to the side of the viewer, as if glancing at an arriving guest.

Alongside Manolo Blahnik heels and a pearl pendant brooch that belonged to 1818’s Duchess of Cambridge Princess Augusta Hesse-Kassel, she wore Princess Diana’s pearl earrings and bracelets. The outfit, inspired by a 2020 trip to Dublin, speaks to the age-old themes of royal portraiture: the combination of the public and the private, the personal and the palatial.

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Coreth, whose previous works includes portraits of the Duke of Roxburghe and the Princess Royal, spoke of his desire to ‘show Their Royal Highnesses in a manner where they appeared both relaxed and approachable, as well as elegant and dignified.’ The process was, he said, ‘the most extraordinary privilege of my life.

For the background, Coreth chose a hexagonal motif emblematic of Cambridge architecture and thus the historic significance of Kate’s royal position. The portrait was commissioned as a gift to the people of Cambridge by the county’s Royal Portrait Fund, and is set for a tour of the area following a three year stint at the Fitzwilliam Museum. It was loaned to the National Portrait Gallery in 2023 to celebrate the gallery’s reopening.

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Hannah Uzor: portrait of the Princess of Wales for Tatler, 2024

Now, in a large-scale portrait commissioned by Tatler, Hannah Uzor depicts Kate in her newest role – The Princess of Wales.

‘She has really risen up to her role – she was born for this,’ says Uzor in our July cover story, adding that ‘she carries herself with such dignity, elegance and grace.’ The cover, crafted after the artist’s study of over 180,000 archival photographs, still manages to incorporate Kate’s personal passions; projects the public have witnessed the princess develop over many years. The green colour wash nods to her love of gardening, and its blue undertones to the time she spent rowing – a hobby that dates back to those years spent studying art at university.

Uzor – who was born Hannah Hasiciimbwe in Lusaka, Zambia and counts Toulouse Lautrec among her influences – has equally captured another side to Kate. ‘I sense with her the joy of motherhood,’ says the artist, who, like her subject, is a mother of three. More than ever, the image of the Princess sits between the dichotomies of royal portraiture, balancing the ceremonial and the sequestered. She gazes out of this month’s cover, eyes once again locked with the viewer: a princess, mother, wife and artist.

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