‘What I had to ask the Queen’: Artist recalls six words he was ordered to say to late monarch for Diamond Jubilee portrait
'I couldn't bring myself to say those words. It's like saying, 'Can I take control of the country?'', says Ralph Heiman
The Queen granted Heimans a one-hour sitting at Buckingham Palace after he was asked to paint her portrait in 2012. The Sydney native, who now resides in South London with his wife and daughters, told The Project in a segment on Tuesday, September 13, "There was a term which I was told to use which was pretty remarkable. It was, 'May I take control now ma'am?'" He clarified the Royal staff instructed him to use the "remarkable" phrase "the moment you begin the sitting."
The Australian-born artist said, "I could not believe that's what I had to say and, in the moment, I couldn't bring myself to say those words. It's like saying, 'Can I take control of the country?" He claimed that the Queen wore the Robe of State, which required four people to assist carry it in because of its weight. He said, "I wanted to paint the Queen in an introspective mood but it's a bit difficult to explain that you would like her to look a little bit somber." He added, "I found there was some resistance from palace staff on the day and the Queen's dresser was quite adamant she should be looking up and looking quite cheery."
The largest official portrait of Her Majesty is the painting titled "The Coronation Theatre." Heimans said that it was twice as big as anything he'd tackled before but the scale is relevant for the impact of the work. He said, "I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were standing in the presence of the Queen, to get that sense they were right before her. She has this extraordinary aura. It's a little bit hard to see behind the mask but what I was impressed by was this sense of humility that she had and that really did inform the painting."
He claimed to have put in 20 hours a day over the course of six months between the sitting and the unveiling. He said, "If you take an X-ray to my painting you'll see there are many different ideas I tried out and painted over and over since it felt like it was living and breathing like the queen herself. It was a real wrestle with the canvas."
The historic coronation site at Westminster Abbey—where the portrait is now housed—serves as the backdrop for the painting, and Heimans was granted two nights alone in the highly regarded church. He said, "It's set where she was crowned on this central circle on the Cosmati Pavement, which is this incredible mosaic on the high altar where the throne is placed." He added, "The crown aligns with this central circle on the ground to give the monarch divine power. It's the epicenter of the British monarchy. Because you never see the Queen alone in public. It was an imagined moment to combine the sitting and the abbey."