HE may not have received letters after his name this week, but a Jewish artist from Sydney has been granted his own Queen’s birthday honour – the honour of painting an official portrait of Elizabeth II to mark her diamond jubilee.
After getting the go-ahead from royal officials, Ralph Heimans spent an hour in the company of Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace, snapping photos that will inform and inspire his painting.
The portrait is set to be unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in October, where it will remain for a few months as the centrepiece of a diamond jubilee display. It will be returned to London in time for the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.
“I was very excited,” recalled Heimans of the moment he heard the royal household had approved his proposal for a portrait.
“But I was also slightly panicky because the date they’d scheduled for the sitting was only 10 days away and I had to do a lot of groundwork.”
That included putting together a crew to help him take the snapshots. While he usually has six or more sittings with a subject, the Queen’s hectic schedule meant she could only afford a one-off 60 minute session – hardly enough time to start sketching, let alone painting.
Nonetheless, the artist, who has previously painted Vladimir Ashkenazy and Princess Mary of Denmark, said despite the time constraint, it was a wonderful experience. “I was obviously very nervous about saying the wrong thing. But I’d had some advisors on protocol … like the first time you speak you say ‘Your Majesty’ and from then on it’s ‘ma’am’.
“Her entrance was very dramatic. We were standing at one end of the corridor in the palace and she emerged from the other end with her entourage, slowly making her way towards us. The light was coming through the windows and she was sparkling as she passed each one. It was really amazing, jaw dropping.”
Despite his nerves, Heimans said the Queen was very friendly and a real pro.
“She shook my hand, I introduced the crew and then I led her into the yellow drawing room where the siting was to take place. Then I had to give her instructions how to pose and it was quite sweet. I was told by an adviser that I should say ‘May I please take control now ma’am’, which is quite hard when you’re in front of her, so I said it kind of timidly.
“But she was very cooperative and did everything I requested.”
While Heimans enthused about his royal appointment, he was tight-lipped when discussing the actual painting. All he would reveal was that it is lifesize, and that it’s a break from traditional official portraits, which usually feature the Queen in the palace.
“I had quite a vision for this painting because we were told there was a good chance it would be the only diamond jubilee portrait – and so far it’s still the only painting commissioned this year.
“Therefore, I wanted it to have a broad vision and, because of the way I work in that it’s narrative portraiture telling a story about the subject, I wanted to find a setting that was of particular significance for the diamond jubilee.”
So what is the setting? “That’s a secret,” said Heimans, “but I think it will resonate strongly with the times, placing her in a context that has a special significance for her coronation and the diamond jubilee.”