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FEATURE

A brush with royalty

The Queen has sat for more than 200 portraits during her 70-year reign. Two of the most memorable are by Jewish artists

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

Rugby prop forward or a corgi? The Queen was likened to both along with many other inappropriate nouns in her portrait painted by Jewish artist Lucien Freud.

Considering the late painter was born into an artistic middle-class Jewish family -his father was an architect, his mother, an art historian – assumptions were made about how accurate his interpretation of the monarch would be. He was, after all, renowned for his tireless and ever-searching commitment to the medium of painting and hailed as a master for seven decades.

But for all the praise the portrait received when Freud unveiled it in 2001, there was an equal amount of derision. One might have thought the subject herself would be the first to balk, when the artist presented the portrait to her in person. Had he read the appraisal by the critic who said Elizabeth II looked like “a rugby prop forward with a five o’clock shadow” or seen The Sun’s front-page headline: “It’s a Travesty Your Majesty.” he might have sent someone else to deliver it. Or posted it with several of her second-class stamps.

The Queen by Freud

As it turned out, Freud had nothing to fear as, according to William Feaver’s biography of the painter, though the Queen didn’t say what she thought of it, she seemed very pleased and said to Freud: “Very nice of you to do this. I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.”

Her Majesty had clearly chosen to side with The Guardian’s Adrian Searle who said: “It is  probably the best royal portrait of any royal anywhere for at least 150 years.” If she thought it made her look like “one of her corgis who has suffered a stroke” she would not have include it in her diamond jubilee show of portraits at Windsor Castle in 2012.

Though not as well known as Freud, the Jewish- Australian artist who painted the Queen’s official diamond jubilee portrait got a better reception. For one thing his 2.5-metre high by 3.4-metre wide creation marking her 60 years on the throne is hanging in Westminster Abbey. Permanently.

Working and living with his family in South London, Ralph Heimans was granted an hour-long sitting with the monarch in the Yellow Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace in 2012. From the blocking on canvass that Heimans did on that extraordinary day, he then chose to set her likeness in Westminster Abbey where she was crowned in 1953.

Like anyone who has ever been in close proximity to the Queen, he is always asked what she is like? Given that 60 minutes is no time to make a judgement he was still able to spot the aura.

“If such a thing exists in this world, she has it,” he says of the woman who was then 86 and wearing the jewelled robes of state with four footmen carrying her 18-foot long train at the time.

Any royal commission has its uses for an artist, but nothing tops the head of the household, which for Heimans lead to him becoming the portraitist of choice for the other royal houses of Europe. For all of his models, the key to success is all in the eyes which he always does first.

“As soon as you paint the eyes, it starts to breathe and it starts to tell you what the painting needs,”he says, though interestingly the Monarch soulfully gazes downwards in the finished work, so her blue eyes are hidden.

Heimans got a second wave of recognition for his royal commission in 2013, but for all the wrong reasons as it was vandalised by a fathers’ rights activist. Following on from the protest antics that included a group member climbing onto Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman, Tim Haries caused £5,000 worth of damage by spray painting“HELP” over the portrait for which he was sentenced a six month prison term.

Nothing could have amused the Queen less, for despite the absence of ebullient enthusiasm, its position in Westminster Abbey speaks volumes. She will likely have appreciated the thought Heimans put in to the narrative: “Images of power can undermine the truth of the actual picture, of the sense of the actual person beneath the trappings of office.I wanted to describe an imagined moment – the Queen alone at night in the Abbey on the precise spot where she was crowned. I tried to imagine what she would be thinking and feeling.”

What he created was enough for Heimans to be given the honour of painting the last portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh in 2017. Newly retired from public service, the Duke is captured standing in the grand corridor at Windsor Castle, located in the private quarters he shared with Her Majesty The Queen. Most significantly the corridor itself held great personal meaning for the Prince who told Heimans that his mother and grandmother were born in a room at the end of the passageway. ” He was very engaged throughout the process; enjoyed it very much and was very chatty afterwards. It was an extraordinary privilege.”

Word travels fast in the royal household as in 2018 it was Prince Charles’ turn to be immortalised, but only after author Howard Jacobson who was one of six literary icons to be asked to sit for a Random House book to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016.

But nothing could ever compare with those moments with the Monarch, who has sat for over 200 official portraits during her reign, the first of which was in 1933 when she was seven-years old.

When Heimans was quite a bit older than that, but not yet known for his art talents he put together a wish list of people he one day hoped to paint. The Queen’s name was at the very top.

 

 

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