Peter Ireland, 2016

Long to Reign Over Us: Caryline Boreham Photographs the Queen's Portraits

Catalogue Text for Royal Tour

TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Pah Homestead, Auckland, New Zealand

29th February to 8th April 2017

Over the past twenty to thirty years there has been much debate about the connection between inert photographs and the very un-inert quality of real life. Until around the 1980s it was generally assumed that photographs at least adequately re-presented what is thought of as reality. As a result of this ongoing debate there is more scepticism about the connection now, especially since the rise of manipulating processes such as Photoshop. But, still, there remains abroad an abiding faith in a direct connection between inert photographs and the teeming facts of “real life”.

This focus on the real often diverts attention from one of the photographic medium’s other strengths – its often surprising connection with what is almost realism’s opposite: symbolism. In Western civilisation, since the so-called Enlightenment in the 18th century, the perceived “real” has always been privileged over the symbolic, as testified by the frequently-used phrase “merely symbolic”.

Recently, this nation’s life has been entwined with the symbolic in hardly “merely” ways: commemorations of Gallipoli and the First World War, the Rugby World Cup and what’s been called the flag debate. This rectangular piece of material flapping in the wind, for example, seems to have caused intense widespread discussion from top to bottom about nationalism, identity, fairness, political manipulation and design. Not bad provocation for a bit of cloth.

Of course, what the flag represents is the issue at stake – a powerful symbol of what and who we think we are as New Zealanders, and as this country observes the 175th anniversary of its founding more thought is bound to begin turning towards our possible future as a republic. One of the arguments against the timing and the single-issue nature of the flag referendum was that it might have been better as part of a total package: constitution, anthem and flag, a precursor to an eventual republican declaration.

At present, our constitution – such as it is: a collection of tangental documents rather than a single, focused statement – rests firmly on a British base, with its Westminster conventions of government. At the apex of these conventions sits the sovereign, the fount of all authority, but in fact exercising almost no political power. Someone unschooled in constitutional matters might be tempted to describe the sovereign’s position as “merely symbolic”, but what are called “reserve powers” are somewhere on the same spectrum as the old Cold War “nuclear deterrent”: better not to be used, but there to keep things in check.

In the 19th century, and possibly up to around 1920, the New Zealand public’s relationship with Crown and Empire could rightly be described as one of devotion – almost a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” – a situation almost unimaginable today, even for the historians who study these matters, because now our hearts are elsewhere.

Part of the cultural baggage colonists brought here was a honed sense of the British class system, at the head of which was the monarch, but over the past century and a half a greater sense of social egalitarianism has prevailed in this country – even if, since the ‘80s, there has been a parallel growth of distinctions based on wealth rather than birth, differences equally obnoxious and possibly more socially destructive.

Those who have personal memories of the Queen’s visit in 1953/54 will recall that the whole country virtually came to a standstill, apart from the seething lines, many deep, often waiting for hours in the sun or rain, straining to catch a glimpse of the sovereign as she swept by. It may not have been devotion exactly, but the fever-pitch was unparalleled, then or since.

The present Queen’s unique reign has seen the steady erosion of the almost mystical quality surrounding the sovereign, one built up by her great-great-great grandmother Victoria over her long reign (and, incidentally, the first British monarch whose visage was known to most of her subjects owing to the ubiquity of photographic cartes-de-visite): the Hanoverians before Victoria took a long time to shake off their German “foreignness” and divert attention from financial and sexual scandals. Victoria’s decades of mourning after Albert’s death, involving rarely being seen, perhaps unintentionally granting her constitutional position an unapproachable eminence that these days only the Japanese imperial house attempts to maintain. Walter Bagehot’s observation in his 1867 classic The English Constitution that “The monarchy’s mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon it” is no longer tenable in any form of social democracy.

A Rubicon was crossed in the UK on 21st June 1969 when television aired the documentary Royal Family, commissioned by the Queen to mark the investiture of her oldest son Charles as Prince of Wales. Designed to give the most intimate, inside view ever known of the daily home lives of the monarch, Prince Philip and their children it was perhaps too successful in conveying their human ordinariness because it has never been rebroadcast. But the daylight had not only been let in, the windows had been opened too. Since then, the “royals” have become the staple of women’s magazines and celebrity gossip, the newest generation of Wills and Kate doing their bit to make the institution described by his great-grandmother as “the Firm” relevant for the early 21st century. And, uniquely, it’s become a relevance socially as much as constitutionally; yet another shift in this age of the internet, the camera phone and social media.

Its relevance to an increasingly Pacific nation such as ours is not in question for many older generations, and one thing the recent flag debate revealed is the uncritical commitment to monarchy by older men, and especially those formerly in the armed services. “Fighting for Queen and Country” had been a byword for airmen, soldiers and sailors, an inextricable element in what they had been fighting for.

Caryline Boreham’s geographically extensive essay portrays interiors where the Queen’s portrait has, literally, pride of place. The images record the appearance of these portraits in official places: sites of power such as Parliament, Council offices and the Courts; sites of prestige and ceremonial such as Government House; but also sites of those organisations for whom loyalty is a feature of their constitutions, such as RSAs and the Freemasons. All such portraits have a role to play, hence the formality of their composition, with the subject, sitting on a throne, all decked out in ermine-edged robes, crowns at best with tiaras coming in at second place, glittering jewellery and, in many, the presence of the symbolic orb in one hand and the sceptre in the other. They are never the Queen-at-home of the Royal Family documentary or the celebrity weeklies, nor are they expected to be works of art. If any were, that would be a bonus.

The present Queen is unique in that her long reign has earned her some – at least grudging – respect, and the avoidance of controversy and seemingly “doing a good job” has elicited admiration, even in those who espouse republicanism. But much of this response is a personal one, not necessarily endorsing the institution of monarchy, and in many cases certainly not.

New Zealand’s slow, but inevitable drift towards becoming a republic will involve discussion as to what kind of head of state will replace the present monarchical arrangement. This examination of our future tends to be conducted quietly: any statement prefaced with “When the Queen dies….” – however realistic – seems brusque and lacking in due respect both to her and her likely successor. Perhaps a longer-term goal, avoiding any disrespect, might be established, say 2040, the two-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The intervening twenty-five years would give us time to conduct a saner and more professional debate than the recent flag exercise afforded. The prospect of a republic requires a real discussion and effective consultation – not the Clayton’s sort politicians often foist on us – with the necessary referenda  aligned with successive General Elections, thus avoiding the wasteful expense involved in the flag process.

At this point there are two obvious questions for such a debate: what kind of head of state would best suit our democracy; and how would the Treaty of Waitangi be enshrined in a new constitution? These are both issues with significant consequences and will need time to be be thrashed out satisfactorily so there’s a broad consensus about what to do and consequently support for what happens. These are questions needing to be formulated soon for future discussion.

For now, though, we have this parade of Boreham’s images. We know why they’re where they are, but the phenomenon can raise few other questions. And while they don’t provide any answers as such, the photographer’s images in their unassuming way make some quite pertinent comments about the current relationship of monarchy to everyday life in New Zealand.

The impression these accumulated photographs give is these royal portraits, despite their generally significant locations and important positions, have the feel of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shores of our history. In fact, one of them, an image from the Howick RSA, depicts the royal portrait retired to the basement, reigning over a trestle table and a broken chair; a harbinger, perhaps, of a time to come.  The documentary tradition of picturing sites unpeopled only reinforces this impression of irrelevance, and even where human figures are present, no one is taking any notice of the portraits. The constitutional back-stop they represent seems to have relegated them to the back-water of our consciousness.

Many Pakeha ancestors made the long and perilous voyage to the other side of the world partly to escape the class-structures and social formality dominating daily life in their homelands. Breaking in a new country – as it seemed to them – is always a great material challenge, with even essential infrastructure such as housing exhibiting a general modesty that characterised domestic architecture, at least up until the later 1980s and beyond. We may have graduated to flashy gin palaces in that time, but not the real palaces backgrounding formal royal portraiture.

Samuel Parnell’s early insistence on the question of workers having the right to eight hours of leisure daily was a vision being made a reality by 1900, given growing industrialisation throughout the 19th century, so that from the beginning of the 20th increasing numbers of people were able to enjoy a degree of free time unknown to their parents and grandparents. Trams and motor vehicles took them to beaches in the weekends, but it took a decade or two for their clothing to adjust to the circumstances of outdoor relaxation and physical pursuits such as games. A century later the informal – but still fashion-conscious – style of New Zealanders seems to have spread world-wide in the tech and innovation generation where the wearing of suits has become a rarity. In these circumstances, the formal royal dress of the ballroom and parade-ground seems foreign in a way that exceeds even geography: queens are from Venus and dukes are from Mars.

As this country moves irrevocably towards republican status, these grand images of those Royal Highnesses seem increasingly stranded on their walls, between the floor of our European heritage and the ceiling of our colonial past.  Boreham’s seemingly dead-pan documentary project takes us on a thoughtful and pertinent royal tour.

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