A new portrait of the Queen has been revealed, painted as a "lasting tribute to Her Majesty’s service."
In true modern fashion, the monarch saw the painting for the first time via her computer screen as she watched the official unveiling during a videocall. This is the first time in history that a royal portrait has been unveiled virtually.
Despite being 94 years old, the Queen was sharp enough to quip that the tea cup in the artwork had no tea in it. Miriam Escofet, who painted the portrait commissioned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), told the Queen that she had included a hidden symbol in the painting – the insignia of the FCO – painted on a tea cup.
"She seemed to react very positively to it," the artist said of the Queen's reaction. "She was smiling, asking how long it took and if I had any more projects on the go after this. When I explained certain elements of the painting, the tea cup, she made some amusing comments. She said ‘but there’s no tea in the cup’."
The painting took seven months to complete, with the finishing touches done during lockdown. Escofet had two sittings with the Queen: one in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle where she spent 30 minutes photographing Her Majesty wearing a blue dress, pearl necklace, earrings and drop brooch. The second sitting took place at Buckingham Palace to focus on her facial expressions.
Escofet was chosen on the recommendation of the National Portrait Gallery after winning the BP Portrait Award with a painting of her mother. She said the palace had been shown a sketch of her plans for the Queen’s portrait but had been "very hands off" and had not interfered.
The second sitting at Buckingham Palace took place in February, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK. Of the sittings, Escofet said the "intensely precious" time flew by.
"She’s a very experienced sitter. She’s fantastic. She’s very much focused on giving you what you need," the artist said. "She’s very present in the room and focused on the job in hand. She has a sense of humour there bubbling under the surface. She was very down to earth, if that’s not a silly thing to say.
"In the first sitting I was asking about her experience with previous portraits and whether she had any particular favourites. I tried to tease it out of her, but she was very diplomatic. Because it was at Windsor, a plane flew by and she commented on the noise. The second time, I did most of the talking because I wanted to get a reaction from her face."
The artwork was unveiled at the FCO with Escofet mounting the portrait on her own easel and draping a cloth over it. Escofet explained some of the painting's details, which was inspired partly by Holbein’s The Ambassadors and the anamorphic distortion technique used by Renaissance painters. She said she wanted to have a "slightly surreal" but appropriate element as something "intriguing for people to stumble upon".
As for the challenges of painting the monarch, she said she tried to capture the essence of the Queen while acknowledging that she is "probably the most recognisable person in the world".
She continued: "What I wasn’t expecting was her humour. I’m not saying she’s cracking jokes, but you can feel it. There’s a real sharpness, a keenness, she’s really there, she really takes you in. I guess it’s a wisdom.
"I really wanted to catch that essence of her in the portrait. That’s a quality that you only really feel when you meet someone. She’s a very powerful, small person, and quite luminous. You can feel this life energy from her, it’s very striking. That became very useful for me because it meant I could get almost an aura of regalness around her in what was actually trying to be a very humane portrait of her."
The videocall continued with the Queen speaking to members of FCO staff about their work around the world during the coronavirus crisis. Aletheia Bligh-Flower, joint head of global health at the FCO, spoke about developing a Covid-19 vaccine and said the Queen knew all about the recent Global Vaccine Summit she had been working on.
"She was very sharp," said Bligh-Flower. "She said it was an extraordinary effort and she was very impressed by the incredible work we’d all done. It was really lovely to hear. She was very much in awe of how tech has played a huge role in all of this."
Asked about the unusual protocol of meeting the Queen over videolink, she said, "The Queen makes people feel very comfortable very quickly. Everyone was nervous but she put us all at ease and we were able to have a really nice conversation."
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