RICHARD EDEN: Mystery over why Princess of Wales’ first official royal portrait moved to storage

RICHARD EDEN: Mystery over why Princess of Wales’ first official royal portrait moved to storage

When the first official royal portrait of the Princess of Wales was unveiled to the public a decade ago, Catherine was typically polite, describing Paul Emsley’s efforts as ‘brilliant, absolutely amazing’.

The critics were less kind, however, condemning it as ‘ghastly…rotten… an out-and-out disaster’ in one case. Another remarked, acidly: ‘It’s only saving grace is that it’s not by Rolf Harris.’

Now, I can disclose that the work has been consigned to a store room at the National Portrait Gallery, even though it’s the London institution’s only solo painting of our future queen. It can be viewed ‘by prior appointment in our archive’.

Catherine is Royal Patron of the gallery in Trafalgar Square and rumours swirl that she may be secretly pleased the work is no longer on public view.

‘It’s unthinkable that the painting of Her Royal Highness would be removed from public view without consulting her,’ a source tells me. ‘That would be very discourteous. She is our greatly valued patron.’

The first official painted portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, by Scottish-born artist Paul Emsley, 2012

Prince William meets artist Paul Emsley as Catherine, then Duchess of Cambridge, looked on after a private viewing of his portrait in 2013

Prince William meets artist Paul Emsley as Catherine, then Duchess of Cambridge, looked on after a private viewing of his portrait in 2013

Catherine is Royal Patron of the National Portrait Gallery (pictured) Trafalgar Square and rumours swirl that she may be secretly pleased the work is no longer on public view

Catherine is Royal Patron of the National Portrait Gallery (pictured) Trafalgar Square and rumours swirl that she may be secretly pleased the work is no longer on public view

The oil painting was given a prominent spot from its unveiling in 2013 until 2018. It was then lent for a touring exhibition around the world until the gallery closed for £35million of refurbishment work in 2020.

When the gallery was reopened last month by the Princess amid great fanfare, only two works featuring her image were left on display: a painting, by Jamie Coreth, of her side by side with her husband, Prince William, and a photograph by Paolo Roversi, an Italian fashion snapper, taken to mark her 40th birthday in 2022.

Emsley’s ‘dead-eyed’ painting, which sparked global controversy for making the Princess look older than her years, was not the only prominent royal portrait to disappear when the gallery reopened. 

Nicky Philipps’s 2010 painting of Princes William and Harry in their Household Cavalry mess uniform was removed from public display. 

The decision sparked speculation that the gallery was keen to avoid Catherine being photographed next to an image of Harry, who publicly accused her of making his wife, Meghan, cry. Among other lurid claims in his memoirs, Spare, he alleged that William physically attacked him and knocked him to the floor.

The gallery insists that the Princess has no influence over its selection of works. ‘Decisions relating to the portraits on display are made by the curatorial team,’ the spokesman says. 

‘With over 250,000 portraits held in our collection, we are only able to display a small percentage within our building. We regularly rotate the portraits on display and loan portraits from the collection to other galleries and organisations.’

Pail Emsley stands in front of his painting at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013. where it had a prominent spot until 2018

Pail Emsley stands in front of his painting at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013. where it had a prominent spot until 2018

Emsley’s ‘dead-eyed’ painting, which sparked global controversy for making the Princess look older than her years, was not the only prominent royal portrait to disappear when the gallery reopened. Pictured: Kate, after seeing Paul Emsley's new portrait in 2013

Emsley’s ‘dead-eyed’ painting, which sparked global controversy for making the Princess look older than her years, was not the only prominent royal portrait to disappear when the gallery reopened. Pictured: Kate, after seeing Paul Emsley’s new portrait in 2013

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