Thursday, 25 October 2012

Portrait of the Queen

New portrait of Queen Elizabeth II

To celebrate Her Majesty's 60th Anniversary, the Government of Canada commissioned a portrait of the Queen. The Queen herself chose from a short list of Canadian artists.

Her choice was Phil Richards and recently the BBC showed a splendid documentary by Hubert Davis of the process by which this formal portrait was executed.

The commissioning process itself is quite complicated but begins with some initial sketches which are submitted to both the Queen and the Commissioners for initial approval.

This is followed by a photo-shoot at Buckingham Palace - the first and only time she will 'sit' for the Canadian-based artist.

Phil Richards is an experienced portrait artist but this must have proved something of an ordeal!

As you can see, Her Majesty is dressed in formal gown and tiara - as she will appear in the finished portrait. From these photographs alone, Richards will execute his painting.

It is not, however, quite as simple as that!

Back in his studio in Toronto Richards fashioned a scale model of the Queen which he then positions in a scale model of the space in which she is to stand.

 If that were not enough, he has also carved and painted a detailed model of the Queen's head in order to allow him to see her under different light conditions.

The composition itself is devised using a complicated perspectival system, derived from Renaissance art, whereby the initial design is placed within a formal set of drawn orthognals

From this sketch Richards creates a large-scale copy on glass or transparent plastic.

In Hubert Davis' documentary film this sequence is particularly beautiful. Using multiple images and some animation, the orthognals emerge of their own accord - with Richards seated magically within his own perspective frame:

It is not clear in the film how the artist converts his glass design onto the canvas itself. My guess is light projection. It is then a process of  starting the painting proper.

When Richards started painting portraits just out of art college, he began with his partner, Jenny. Later, when the children arrived, he painted them.

These family portraits are not only affectionate images of his children but witty comments on art itself, with hidden or disguised 'references' to other painters and styles.

This inclusion of iconographic detail is something he will later use in his portrait of the Queen.

Back in his studio in Toronto Philips next prepares his canvas. From initial sketches not much bigger than nine inches by six, he is now working on a finished canvas that will be 9 x 6 feet!

It has taken Phil Richards fifteen years to reach the quality and reputation clearly required for a formal commission of this kind but his attention to detail and meticulous preparation actually made the painting 
process itself quite quick.

Nearly finished!

However, there remains the most nerve wracking moment of all - showing the finished work to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Britain has a long tradition of formal royal portraits. Historically, the standard of royal portraiture is high and expectations from new artists are equally demanding.

Imagine this artist's feeling of anxiety as he waits for the Queen herself to unveil his portrait in one of the state rooms of Buckingham Palace itself!

So, what did she think of it? Was she pleased?

 I think so!

Her Majesty the Queen by Phil Richards (detail) 2012

As in his less formal portraits, Richards has incorporated into this painting details of an historical nature.

The painting includes, for example, a number of symbolic elements that represent aspects of Her Majesty’s 60 years of service to Canada.

For example, she is depicted wearing her Canadian honours. Resting against two Victorian ink pots is a copy of the British North America Act of 1867 that was signed by Queen Victoria and repatriated in 1982 during Her Majesty’s reign.

The vase is embossed with The Queen’s Canadian Diamond Jubilee Emblem.
Foot Note
The portrait by Phil Richards is currently on view at  Rideau Hall - the Canadian Governor General's formal residence in Ottawa, Ontario.

Hugh Davis' splendid documentary- called Painting the Queen - a Portrait of Her Majesty - is currently available on BBC iPlayer

Click on the link below for direct access to the BBC


Mike Healey

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