As befitting the Company that Broadcasts British, this weekend’s BBC programming was rife with Diamond Jubilee themed shows. Alastair Sooke’s exploration of regal portraiture on Saturday night was a double sided (one pound) coin. Sooke uses the tradition of the royal portrait to reveal the propaganda machine of royalty. From their outfits to the jewels to the size of the drape in the background, all the elements used to paint a queen are present to communicate an important message. One of power, majesty and above all: that a woman can rule.
Justin Mortimer HM The Queen (1998)
I was commissioned to paint the Queen in 1997 by The Royal Society for the Arts. I didn’t paint her from life – although a special room at Buckingham Palace is set up for artists complete with throne on a dais, old easel, even paintbrush holder – but I had two 2 hour sittings with her and did lots of sketches and took photos and Polaroids.
Previously I was invited to meet the head of the Queen’s Wardrobe to choose an outfit for the commission.
The painting I made was very controversial because I separated her head from her body. The media went quite crazy and some came up with headlines along the lines of “Off with Her Head!” etc etc! There was even a poll on national TV news asking viewers to rate the painting – 87% slated it. The press in some commonwealth countries went crazy about it too and I was interviewed for Canadian and Australian radio. In fact a lot of the hate mail I received came from these places and surprisingly America – ‘Why do you Brits hate your Royals so much?’.
Interestingly though, the Queen’s equerry Sir Robert Janvrin had an opposite reaction when he first saw the painting in my studio; bearing in mind the commission happened just when the public were outraged at the Palace’s treatment of Princess Diana, he said that a strong, modern representation was exactly right at a time when they were seeking to modernize the Queen’s image
The Queen of course had no idea how I was going to paint her and what’s more made no comment when the painting was unveiled (she never comments on the portraits made of her) – however she did go on to commission me personally to paint her Lord Chamberlain for the Royal Collection and I’ve wondered sometimes if maybe she didn’t like him very much.
The first sitting was pretty tense and I found it hard to focus on my drawing – she sat very formally (like a Queen) in her chair and was chatting non-stop to her equerry.
The second sitting was a more relaxed affair; I felt able to direct her and got her to walk around and twist and move in the seat while I took photographs. I got pretty close shooting off Polaroids and when I stepped back a whole pile had ejected into her lap.
This time, we even talked. She was funny. We looked out the window together at the tourists on the Mall looking in. I don’t remember drinking tea.