Dark clouds loom over the Palace garden. The Queen, mute and immutable, stands firm in a heavy woolen cape as the sky threatens thunderbolts against her. The lake, fed by water from the Serpentine, looks murky as does the rest of the normally idyllic landscape. There is something dark descending upon London.
This photo, “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, London,” is prominently placed at the end of the Legion of Honor gallery showcasing Annie Leibovitz‘ work. Although the exhibit features her output from 1990 through 2005, the portrait was actually taken just last year. Upon its initial release in 2007, I don’t recall having seen it at all. But it’s my favorite of all Ms. Leibovitz’ photographs.
I find that there is something of the Mona Lisa about the composition, and the figure herself. What secrets, what foreboding vision does the woman hold that we do not? She is a sphinx, and appears to be made, like that great enigmatic creature, from stone, so cold and hard is her presence. Mythology tells us that the sphinx strangled those incapable of answering her riddles, but do you know that before the Greeks named the monumental figure of Giza a “sphinx”, the Arab name for it translated as “Father of Terror”?
But that’s history. Time and place have changed. Buckingham Palace is far from the unforgivable desert, and today the chilled Queen is the one under threat of terror.
I saw this photo just hours after news broke internationally that young Prince Harry had been spending the past 10 weeks in a front-line deployment in Afghanistan. While Harry made the delusional claim that his late mother Diana would be “proud” of him, and that he regretted having to go back to Windsor, a Taliban spokesperson was quoted as saying that the entire royal family was now a legitimate target.
A few days later Taliban Commander Mullah Abdul Karim said “He is our special enemy. Our first option was to capture him as a prisoner. The second, to kill him.”
He claimed “He may be a Prince but he didn’t have a Prince’s heart. He proved as cruel and brutal as other British soldiers, bombing and shelling innocent Afghans and Taliban.”
And speaking from Lebanon, Omar Bakri Mohammad said that “The Prince has become a murderer, a facilitator of war and the reports of him killing on the front-line will not be tolerated by Muslims. It would have been better for the world to have kept this a secret to protect him and the Royal Family, who have just made themselves even bigger targets in the eyes of Muslims… I think Harry himself now will be at risk. He is an ambassador of war and that is the difference between him and his mother.”
So now with hatred and revenge in their hearts, terrorists have a prime target in sight, and it resides in the center of London. We have seen how weak security at Buckingham Palace has been in the past, how easy it has been for non-authorised people to get access to the Queen and other Royals. The danger is greater than it has ever been.
And thus the British Monarchy ends?
Should a bomb strike the Palace, if members of the royal family were to be assassinated – well, it would hit us all. The monarchy ends to the detriment not just of Elizabeth II and her paunchy, pasty crew, but truly of the entire West. We assume that the British monarchy has no bearing on our lives. One doesn’t notice its existence, or care. But we may never recover from its destruction.
I look again at Leibovitz’ great portrait and think of all the other images of power preceding it. Through them one sees the ebb and flow of civilizations, but usually one sees a culture at either its highest moment or just before its fall. We won’t know at which point in history the Leibovitz portrait takes its place until the matter is scholastic.
More pressing is the question we’re forced to contemplate as we look at the photograph today, as we see her there standing stoically with clouds descending and the wind rushing in. One wonders if, ultimately and profoundly, she can withstand the storm.
Photo: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, London. 2007. By Annie Leibovitz.
What: “Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life”
Where: Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco
When: Saturday March 1 through May 25, 2008. 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Monday.
Admission: $15, with discounts for seniors and students. Free 12 and younger.
Information: (415) 750-3600, www.legionofhonor.org