The best royal portrait for 150 years

Portraiture is supposed to get beneath the skin; Lucian Freud has got beneath the powder, and that itself is no mean feat.

Seeing any painting in reproduction is deceptive, and in Lucian Freud's case especially so. There is always a great tension between the surface and the subject, paintedness and presence.

But what an audacious portrait! Part Richard Nixon joke mask, part hairspray advert (as solid as meringue, in any weather), and the "before" half of a before-and-after testimonial for constipation tablets. And are my dentures in?

But this is to be ageist. Freud, in his late self-portraits, is no more kind towards his own decrepitude. This is not a mocking caricature. The Queen has come made-up for being painted, and painted made-up.

Portraiture is supposed to get beneath the skin; Freud has got beneath the powder, and that itself is no mean feat. It is a picture of a painted face, gluey with make-up, faithful to the lipstick sneer. Both sitter and painter have seen too much, are easily, stoically bored. They know the shape they're in. This is a painting of experience.

Cropped by the frame, Brenda looms imperiously, like a frightening aunt about to bestow that dreaded kiss. And where is she looking? Concentrating on the crown, like a rock on her head bearing down on those coiffed horns; it might as well carry the Toon Town legend 16 TONS.

It is a great painting of pointless jewels, pearls before swine. Her eyes are at a tangent to her painter, and to us, one looking out, one looking down. The Queen looks back at her beholders as though we were nothing, and she were not much more.

This is the only painted portrait of the Queen, or any other member of the current royal family, of any artistic or indeed human merit whatsoever. It is probably the best royal portrait of any royal anywhere for at least 150 years.

Best of all, Freud has more than fulfilled his obligation, and can walk away with dignity.

· Adrian Searle is the Guardian's art critic

· Can you do better? Draw your own portrait of the Queen and send it to us (as a .jpg), and the best one wins a copy of The Guardian Year Book 2001. We'll publish a selection of our favourites in the new year. Send your portraits to:


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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