Who has caught their eye? Someone – perhaps their four-year-old, Prince Louis, who fidgeted so memorably during the Platinum Jubilee – is making the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge smile.
With this charming compositional device, Jamie Coreth, the British artist chosen to execute the couple’s first official joint portrait – now on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge – introduces a vital note of informality into a picture that could otherwise have been so stiff. Prince William twinkles benevolently, as if tickled by a wayward favourite child; Catherine appears almost quizzical, her manicured left eyebrow ironically semi-raised. Thus, we’re offered a flash of their private selves, which counteracts the occasion’s public formality.
Skilfully, Coreth also suggests the solidity of their marriage by fusing their bodies together: note how one of Catherine’s legs is carefully tucked behind the other, to avoid a millipede-like jumble of limbs; two of their arms, meanwhile, are out of sight beyond their torsos, so that the Cambridges become almost a single organism. Their eyes may be wandering, but not, we’re led to understand, from each other.
And yet: isn’t the picture’s execution, the handling of paint, a little weird? The faces, both brilliant likenesses, are quasi-photographic. (Keen, perhaps, to avoid charges of sycophancy, Coreth does little to distract from William’s baldness.) Yet, thanks to the wickerwork-like quality of the supposedly bravura brushwork, which is meant to enliven, for instance, Catherine’s vampire’s-wife dress, the portrait resembles a smartphone snap layered with various “effects”. It makes me think of society portraits from the turn of the last century, but with a contemporary twist: a work by, say, Giovanni Boldini, flickering with swift, turbulent strokes, reimagined by an algorithm for the Instagram age.
For all the picture’s spontaneity, then, there’s something strangely artificial about the overall effect. With his skinny legs and dark suit, William has the flat quality of a silhouette. The jagged contour of his head is awkward, interacting clumsily with the background, as if Coreth had cut-and-pasted his visage into the composition using photo-editing software. Moreover, the picture’s light-dark contrast is extreme – deliberately so, I suspect, to evoke the pop of a paparazzo’s flashbulb. (They are dressed for the red carpet, after all.) But, again, it feels as though a slider in “Settings” had been flicked to max. Perhaps this is the “modern vision” to which Coreth’s website refers.
Suave and proficient, this portrait is certainly a lot better than the virago-like sculpture of Diana, the late Princess of Wales – whose pearl-drop earrings Catherine wears here, along with a brooch lent by the Queen – that was unveiled by William and his brother Harry in Kensington Palace Gardens last summer. But it’s also thoroughly conventional, with that hint of solid masonry behind them, echoing the erect rigidity of the Duchess’s pose (as well as the Duke’s weight-bearing leg), like a column in the background of a portrait by Van Dyck.
If William wishes, one day, to reinvigorate the monarchy with youthful energy, then may I humbly suggest that, next time he’s choosing a portraitist, he doesn’t play it quite so safe.