House and Garden

Three artists on what it’s like to create a portrait of the Queen

Chris Levine, Alexander Talbot Rice and Jemma Phipps have all captured the Queen’s likeness on different occasions. But what are the challenges and idiosyncrasies of creating a portrait of the world’s most recognisable woman?

At Charleston right now is a series of paintings and photographs of artists’ studios, curated by Langlands & Bell. Entitled Absent Artists, and deliberately exhibited without any labelling, some are nonetheless identifiable. There are a couple of the late Lucian Freud’s workspace, captured by David Dawson’s camera – Dawson having been Freud’s long-term studio assistant, model and friend. One in particular stands out: a bland-looking room with an easel, upon which rests a painting of the Queen, who is mostly recognisable on account of her wearing the George IV State Diadem. The painting is unquestionably by Freud, but conspicuously absent in the photograph is the usual surrounding detritus. A little research will reveal that it’s not that Freud cleaned up for the Queen – it’s that he had to make an exception to his usual practice of having his sitters come to him, and instead travel to St. James’s Palace, and specifically to the picture conservation studio at Friary Court. He was given fifteen sittings with Her Majesty, between May 2000 and December 2001, which is very few for Freud (Andrew Parker-Bowles, for instance, sat two mornings a week for eighteen months), and a great many for the Queen. Allegedly, they had a whale of time, talking about horses and racing non-stop.

The portrait was not commissioned, as most such pictures of the Queen are, but was painted at Freud’s request as a present to her. Monarchs have always been painted by the leading portrait artist of their time; Henry VIII by Holbein, Charles V by Titian, Charles I by Van Dyck, Philip IV of Spain by Velázquez, and so on. The Queen evidently agreed to the exercise and was diplomatic when the portrait was revealed in all its raw intensity. The Sun, which has never shied from dramatic statement, suggested that Freud should be executed. The Guardian hailed it as the finest royal portrait in 150 years. It’s still in the royal collection, and it is being lent to the National Gallery for the Lucian Freud centenary exhibition that opens on 1 October, so we can all make up our own minds (again) then.

But the controversy over Freud’s portrait – and indeed the newly released Algorithm Queen by robot artist Ai-Da, in which, as the Guardian noted, Her Majesty looks as though she is wearing a tin hat with camouflage netting – is emblematic of what it is to try to depict the Queen. We see her every day, everywhere, on stamps, on currency, in newspapers and, perhaps most importantly, in our mind’s eye. She’s been a constant through our lives, aging so imperceptibly that she’s at once the young girl of Cecil Beaton’s official coronation photograph, attired in all the pomp and regalia of office, and the nation’s grandmother, walking the corgis in the gardens of Balmoral with a silk scarf tied under her chin. She’s an icon, theoretically remote and untouchable, and yet we analyse her choice of jewellery for unspoken political affiliation which we assume aligns with our own and take exception on her behalf to any perceived slight – including an unflattering portrait.

Whether using paint or photography, capturing her likeness is a daunting prospect for any artist – but the Queen is an irresistible subject, as those we’ve spoken to explain.

Chris Levine

The photographer Chris Levine was commissioned by the Jersey Heritage Trust to create a portrait of the Queen in 2004, to mark 800 years of allegiance to the Crown by the Island of Jersey. He took the original image, and then worked with holographer Rob Munday. Two now seminal images came out of the experience; Equanimity, in which the Queen has her eyes open, and Lightness of Being, in which her eyes are closed. Equanimity was presented to the National Portrait Gallery by the people of Jersey in 2011, and in 2012 it was the cover of Time magazine.

Equanimity by Chris Levine, holographed by Rob Munday

“Originally, back in 2004, I had one sitting scheduled, which had been in the diary for about three years. Beforehand, I got a call from Angela Kelly, asking: what would I like Ma’am to wear? I originally thought that Jersey would want all sorts of props and suggestions, and I thought there would be reams of bureaucracy, but ultimately I was left entirely to my own devices, which was liberating, but also a huge responsibility. I put to Angela the type of portrait I was looking to create; icon is a word that is used and abused, but I really did set out to make a resonant icon, to distil the image. I wanted to do something simpler than Beaton, to purify the essence of Her Majesty. So I asked for a simple A-line dress, and one row of pearls, not two. I went through the crown jewels and chose a diamond diadem with a very simple cross – it’s what the Queen wears for the opening of Parliament, and actually it’s the same one that Freud chose. I also asked for some different capes, because I thought they would be quite easy to change to get different looks. One, for instance, was quite military, but on the day, when she put on the ermine, I just knew that was the one. It was magical.

“The sitting took place in the yellow drawing room at Buckingham Palace, which is often chosen because it has good natural light. I completely blacked it out, and had incense burning. On the morning of the shoot I got a phone call and was asked if it was really essential that I had the diadem – there’d been an oversight and it hadn’t been arranged. I was so close to saying of course not, please don’t worry – but I really did want it, and I’m glad that I said that I did. Apparently the Queen said, ‘If the artist wants the diadem, he shall have the diadem.’

“We shot it, I had it in the can, and after the Queen left I lay down on the floor and just thought, ‘Hallelujah.’ And then one of her aides walked in – I was still on the floor, I had to jump up and brush myself off – and said that Her Majesty had enjoyed that, and if I’d like a second sitting I just had to write and ask. Well, of course, there’s always hindsight, and I did have a second sitting. I went to see Mario Testino the day before and, for that sitting, made some very subtle changes.

“After the second sitting I had two further audiences with her, to show her the work in process. I had an edit of five, and I wanted to involve her in choosing the final image. I went to Windsor Castle – we spoke about meditation, and she told me that her meditation was her gardening at Balmoral. Two sittings and two private audiences was very special, and I feel deep love for the Queen. There’s a constancy to her presence, and I really value that – I think a lot of people do. Also, she’s exactly the same height as my mother.

“Prince Charles unveiled the portrait in Jersey; he was quite taken with it. In 2012, the National Portrait Gallery asked me how I felt about the two images being in an exhibition to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee. They were the opening and closing images of the show – it opened with Equanimity, which is her with her eyes open, and closed with Lightness of Being, which is her with her eyes closed. That one was positioned next to Freud’s painting: his quite small canvas next to my quite big lightbox.”

Alexander Talbot Rice

Alexander Talbot Rice painted the Queen in 2005, having been commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers. Also in the painting is Sir Michael Oliver, then Lord Mayor of London.

“The first time I met the Queen was as a result of a painting I did of the Duke of Edinburgh, and that happened because I had painted Richard Charteris, who was a trustee at Windsor Castle. The Duke was my first royal commission and it took place at Buckingham Palace in the yellow drawing room. I remember being led there down all these corridors lined by paintings by great artists – so, no pressure! But I got on extremely well with the Duke, and when the painting was unveiled it was well received.

Her Majesty The Queen by Alexander Talbot Rice

“The Duke invited me down to Windsor Castle to paint a portrait of him driving his carriage, so I spent a weekend with him and the Queen as a guest. I spent the day with the Duke, carriage driving, and then was due to meet him for drinks. ‘Whatever you do, don’t wear a tie!’ he said. I was in the Henry VIII tower, waiting for the Duke, when a corgi came in and sat on my foot. I heard a voice behind me saying, “You are honoured,” and it was the Queen. We talked for a while, and I told her how much it had meant to my father, who had recently died, to know that I was painting the Duke, who was the Colonel-in-Chief of my father’s regiment, the Welsh Guards. And then we went through to dinner, and she sat me on her right, and it was incredibly embarrassing because she had dressed for dinner, and I still wasn’t wearing a tie.

“The Duke kept the painting I had done of him driving his horses in his study at Windsor Castle, and he used to cut things out of newspapers and send them to me if he thought I’d be interested. And I think that’s probably why, when the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers sent through a list of proposed artists to paint her portrait, she chose me.

“I painted the Queen at the Royal Mews. Because she knew me, I think she felt relaxed, and that was lovely. I helped her up into the carriage – and then for the first sitting, which was only an hour long and the most important hour of my life, I had one of the Queen’s aides standing just behind me. Trying to be diplomatic, I eventually summoned up the courage to say that it was so lovely that he was there but that really I didn’t need anything, and he left – and then halfway through he came back! And the Queen said, “What are you doing here? Is it cold outside?” And he went out again, which was a relief.

“I had three sittings with the Queen, but I was at the Royal Mews almost every day to paint the carriage – there is so much detail in it. And I painted the Queen smiling, because when she smiles, it’s like the sun comes out – she can look quite severe when she’s not smiling.

“The painting hangs at the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, but it was lent to the the Smithsonian in Washington for an exhibition that coincided with a state visit. Mine was the only painting by a living artist. It means so much to me to have painted the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen: it’s an affirmation of everything I’m doing as a painter.”

Jemma Phipps

Jemma Phipps painted the Queen in 2006, commissioned by the Royal Ascot authority to mark the Queen’s 80th birthday. Some of Jemma’s paintings can currently be seen at the Chatsworth Living With Art We Love exhibition.

“The Duke of Devonshire was Her Majesty’s Representative at Ascot, and I’d painted his daughter, Lady Celina Cavendish, and I’d painted one of his friends, John Warren. And Mum [Susan Crawford] had done work for Chatsworth, and she had painted the Queen on one of her horses. I’d met the Queen a few times before, so I’d seen her in the flesh, but it was such an honour to be asked to paint her. I was 28 at the time, and the youngest person ever to have painted the Monarch. It was just so exciting. I looked through the archives of all the previous portraits of her. My favourite is by Pietro Annigoni – he was a great artist.

HM The Queen by Jemma Phipps

“On my first visit, I was invited to choose which room I was going to paint her in, and I chose the music room because it has big north-facing windows. I was asked to choose what she was going to wear, a rail was brought out and I picked a pastel pink suit. She – the Queen – chose the jewellery, the Williamson Flower Brooch [this brooch holds the finest pink diamond in the world, and is one of the Queen’s favourites; she has worn it to two of her children’s weddings]. For the first sitting Angela Kelly was present, and I had been given four sittings in total – though in the end we had three because I was ill for the fourth and did not want to give my cold to the Queen. But each time I parked my worn-out VW in front of the palace, and footmen carried my easel and canvas up the stairs, which felt amazing!

“At the first sitting I felt a bit daunted, and I took some photographs of her standing up in the pose, but she wasn’t going to stand for an hour so she sat down, and I painted her face from life. The importance of the sittings is that it is only in life, when chatting, that you get the spirit, and the twinkle in the eye, and the expression. I did work from my photographs too but the sitting was essential for being able to put life into the painting.

“I painted her holding a race card, and her watch, if you look at it, says three o’clock – so we know that a race is about to start. Her watch is quite loose, and her necklace isn’t perfectly alined, and I like that, because that is how it was. Doing it for Ascot was wonderful, because Ascot is one of her favourite places to be, so you knew how much she really wanted to be there.

“Angela Kelly wasn’t always there, but it never felt awkward. We talked about dogs and her childhood with Princess Margaret, and I think that element was what was most extraordinary; it was the greatest privilege was to have three hours of one-on-one conversation with the Monarch. After one sitting I was left in the music room, cleaning my palette and my brushes, while she went into a next door room to be photographed for a coin. She changed the hat for a diadem, and poked her head around the door and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful what a tiara can do!’

“The Queen famously never comments on her portraits, so I wasn’t every expecting any feedback, but I did hear later from a lady-in-waiting that she had liked it. And I won a Daily Mail poll where people voted for their favourite portrait of the Queen – but I think that was because all my friends very loyally phoned in.”