‘Conversation piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor’
by Sir James Gunn. Oil on canvas, 1950. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II), and her sister Princess Margaret. The Royal Family remained in London throughout the war, and when Buckingham Palace received a direct hit the Queen said “now we can look the East End in the face”. Determination to share in the fate of the nation increased the popularity of the monarchy. The informality of the presentation, for which Queen Elizabeth was responsible, was entirely new: set at Royal Lodge, where the family's life was informal, and at tea-time, an accessible and very British occasion.
Gunn was chosen by the King and Queen for the commissioned which was always intended to hang in a public collection. Its domestic character demonstrates the public perception of the monarchy at the end of WW2. The painting projects the image of a traditional British family as an ideal, which perfectly expressed the spirit of the nation at the time. Britain’s major cities in 1950 were peppered by vacant bomb-sites, unrepaired houses, temporary prefabs and gardens turned into allotments, yet it was still a country that had a strong sense of its own identity. The population, which totalled about 50 million in 1950, was overwhelmingly indigenous. The 1951 census showed that only 3 per cent of the population had been born overseas and the great majority of the immigrants were white, European and Christian. Princess Elizabeth was in Kenya when she succeeded to the throne in 1952 and her coronation had a strongly imperial flavour.
In England, the Second World War had revived a sense of Englishness which was reflected, for example, in Nikolaus Pevsner’s lectures on ‘The Englishness of English Art’ and the series of books on English heritage published by Collins. But many writers feared that traditional English culture was being rapidly undermined. Evelyn Waugh lamented the decline of the aristocratic country house, while John Betjeman mourned the loss of regional individuality in the face of modernisation and mechanisation.