The Queen and London's arts scene
Music, theatre, visual arts and dance were the richer for the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II, who has died, aged 96
The new King Charles III has been, and is likely to remain, a more conspicuous champion of the arts than his mother. But it was perhaps because the Queen’s appearances at live performances were relatively few and far between, that they were especially memorable – and glamorous – occasions.
Patron of many London institutions which bear the Royal name because of the passion of her forebears, including the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Ballet, the Queen has also been custodian of one of the greatest art collections in the world. The Queen’s Gallery, endowed with gifts and the foresighted purchases of the Queen’s ancestors, is a window into the once opulent world of the British monarchy. Its current exhibition, Japan: Courts and Culture, reflects its global reach.
The Queen attends War Horse at the National Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
A passion for horses made the Queen’s visit to the Royal National Theatre in October 2013 a perfect fit. Having opened the theatre in 1963, to mark its 50th anniversary she came face to face with puppet Joey, star of the long-running show based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel. It was ‘a very special day’, said then NT director Sir Nicholas Hytner. But it was not her first time at War Horse. She had slipped into a 2009 performance at the Gillian Lynn Theatre, to the surprise of other theatregoers.
She opened the Queen Elizabeth Hall along the river from the National Theatre in 1967, when the debut concert was conducted by the composer Benjamin Britten.
The Queen loved musicals, and it is said that 'People Will Say We’re in Love' from Oklahoma!, which she and Prince Philip saw as young lovers, was their special song. She attended 35 Royal Variety Performances from 1952, each a showcase of that year’s top live acts. Her Majesty's Theatre in Haymarket, home of The Phantom of the Opera for half of the late Queen's reign, will be renamed His Majesty's.
Royal party planner and cousin of the Queen, Lady Elizabeth Anson, revealed in a radio documentary Our Queen: 90 Musical Years, that the Queen loved mainstream musicals including Show Boat, Oklahoma!, and Annie Get Your Gun. Her favourite songs included ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)’....
The Queen chose EU colours when she opened Parliament in 2017
She loved ABBA, including Dancing Queen, of course. And she loved clothes. Her distinctive coat and hat ensembles by British designers were a shop window for British tailoring and millinery, and she occasionally was witty and mischievous in her attire, as at the state opening of Parliament when she sported the EU colours of blue and yellow after the Brexit referendum.
Pictures of the Queen meeting dancers of the Royal Ballet during her Golden Jubilee in 2002 have been among those beamed around the world on the announcement of her death, the monarch’s famous radiance more than a match for her dazzling surroundings.
As Master of the Queen’s Music, a role created by Charles I in 1626, the composer Judith Weir is likely to be called upon to write a piece to mark the death of her patron, and, in time, for the coronation of Charles III. The Queen’s devout Christian faith met the world of music at great state occasions and in regular worship.
Church music originally written for such events has become a mainstay of the choral repertoire sung by choirs in London and worldwide. For her Coronation in Westminster Abbey, nine composers wrote 10 new works. Sir Edward Elgar composed his Nursery Suite for the four-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her one-year-old sister Princess Margaret.
Prince Philip and the Queen were fans of Oklahoma!
In 1953, no fewer than 23 members of the Royal family attended the first night of Britten’s opera Gloriana at the Royal Opera House. It was the first time for nearly 200 years that a reigning monarch had been to the opera. (The Queen’s ancestor George II, patron of Handel, in contrast, was rarely not at the opera…) On 8 December, English National Opera gives a platinum jubilee year performance of Gloriana.
Otherwise the Queen rarely attended live classical music events, but her July 2006 appearance at the BBC Proms lives on in the memory. The programme to mark her 80th birthday included A Little Birthday Music by her then Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
The text was by Andrew Motion, then the Queen's Poet Laureate, another ancient royal appointment. The first in that role was John Dryden, appointed by Charles II in 1668. That 10-year role is currently carried out by Simon Armitage. His poem Floral Tribute, on the death of the Queen, includes the line
‘A promise made and kept for life – that was your gift …’
The giant billboard on Piccadilly Circus honours the Queen on announcement of her death on 8 September 2022
This year's remaining three BBC Proms, including the rumbustious Last Night of the Proms were cancelled on news of the Queen’s deaths, as was a performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House. The gilded monogram ER have already been removed from the curtains of the Covent Garden stage.
But it is perhaps as a subject of plays, films, art and television that the Queen left her greatest legacy to the arts. As the deference of the early years of her reign gave way to more relaxed commentary, the playwright Alan Bennett produced one of the great plays of the 1980s with A Question of Attribution.
In it, the Queen, knowingly played by Prunella Scales, queries the subject of fakery with her Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt, (originally played by Bennett), who is later outed as a Russian spy.
Helen Mirren as the Queen and Paul Ritter as Prime Minister John Major in The Audience
Dame Helen Mirren also scored a notable success as the Queen in The Audience, the play by Peter Morgan that showed the monarch’s enduring relationship with prime ministers who come and go. In The Audience were sewn the seeds of Morgan’s massive and ongoing Netflix hit, The Crown.
Former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poem also called The Crown marked 60 years since the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. It concludes with the lines:
Time-gifted, the crown is old light, journeying from skulls of kings
to living Queen.
Its jewels glow, virtues; loyalty's ruby, blood-deep; sapphire's ice resilience; emerald evergreen;
the shy pearl, humility. ‘My whole life, whether it be long
or short, devoted to your service’. Not lightly worn.
The Queen was a patient sitter for photographers and portrait artists
The Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Wallace Collection and National Gallery will be closed on Monday 19 September, the day of the Queen’s funeral, as will all Tate galleries. All performances at the National Theatre on that date are cancelled, and many West End theatres have announced their intention to close that evening. BFI IMAX and BFI Southbank have suspended screenings on 19 September. Southbank Centre, Shakespeare's Globe, and BFI Southbank are offering its facilities to those queuing along the south bank of the Thames to pay their respects at the lying in state in Westminster Hall