September 30, 2022

What Happens to Everything With Queen Elizabeth II’s Image?


“EIIR” as a symbol has become deeply familiar, along with portraits of the queen such as the famous Arnold Machin portrait used on postage stamps, says Pauline Maclaren at Royal Holloway, University of London. “It’ll be so strange, it fading into the background,” she adds.

But fade these things will, if not entirely. This has actually been happening for many decades as various nations have modernized and moved away from the trappings of the British Empire. The queen’s image was once even more prominent than it is today, especially in certain countries of the Commonwealth.

“At one point, you would have seen a portrait of the queen in every [Australian] school classroom—that’s long gone,” says Cindy McCreery, senior lecturer in the department of history at the University of Sydney.

But all coins and some banknotes in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, to name a few countries where the British monarch is head of state, still carry her likeness. The mere prospect of a highly noticeable change to these financial instruments is itself a prompt to reconsider what it means to live in a monarchy, says McCreery. That alone could fuel the debate over whether Australia should remain as such—or step out as a republic.

“There’s been a very, partly conscious and partly unconscious, downsizing of monarchical paraphernalia and insignia,” says Peter McNally, professor emeritus at McGill University, referring to the situation in Canada, another of the realms instantly inherited by Charles III upon the death of his mother.

Some in Canada draw on the monarchy to distinguish their culture from that of the United States, notes McNally. But it does not appeal to everyone. And whether Charles III will feature on $20 banknotes in Canada, as the queen did, feels “up in the air” during this period of transition, he says. The Bank of Canada and Royal Canadian Mint have not given any indication of what will happen with these notes.

We, as members of the public, will notice iconographic changes as they unfold—and as the expense associated with such adjustments becomes clear. For most, in the end, the transition will be little more than a curiosity. But the person to whom all of this upheaval will really matter is the king himself, since all monarchs really live through their image. The late queen famously remarked that, as sovereign, she felt she had “to be seen to be believed.” She certainly was, frequently pictured in brightly colored outfits with matching hat and carrying her trusty handbag. At once noticeable—and recognizable.

While there may be nothing in principle preventing Charles III from donning lime green suits or tangerine lounge wear, it is highly unlikely, notes Maclaren: “Charles will not make the same impact. He’s going to be a rather gray man among many.”

It means that his iconography, and the insistence of his authority via everyday objects, in official buildings and across more than a dozen nations, is arguably even more crucial for him than for his predecessor. The king may not want institutions to be wasteful in adopting a new cipher or distributing the royal likeness. But without such things, there is a possibility that his profile will feel even more diminished in succeeding a colorful, long-reigning queen whose image more or less conquered the world.

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