Ralph Heimans On His Crowning Achievement By The Luxury Channel
For an artist, all commissions between the subject and artist are very personal but when your work demands you paint a portrait of Her Majesty The Queen, this surely must take on a whole new dimension of a client relationship.
Portrait artist Ralph Heimans is, however, no stranger to painting royalty, having previously been commissioned to paint the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. As the only artist commissioned to paint Her Majesty in her Diamond Jubilee year, it must have been especially challenging, if not nerve-wracking. The Luxury Channel was privileged to be invited to Westminster Abbey with a small group of guests to see this extraordinary painting, which was not only extraordinarily large but also very detailed.
“It was the most ambitious thing I’ve done by far, without a doubt,” Heimans affirms. “Choosing just exactly how to represent the Queen was hard. That was something that I was completely struck by when I met her – she looked incredible, and she was beautiful.”
Heimans’ 11 foot painting depicts Her Majesty caught in a moment of quiet reflection in Westminster Abbey. “This is obviously an imagined moment – it never happened – but it’s almost as if it could have happened,” Heimans says. “She’s surrounded by this immense darkness and space, so you have a sense of her solitude. No-one can possibly imagine what it’s like to perform her role. Perhaps there’s a sense of the burden of office, and that is something I wanted to convey, in the way she holds her heavy robe.”
The robe itself – the robe of State, no less – is very much a focal point in the painting, and Heimans was keen for this to be the case. “The robe is a device, in the way that I’ve used it – to lead the viewer into the subject directly,” he says. During her sitting with Heimans, which took place not at the Abbey but at Buckingham Palace, “the Queen stood as close to [how she stands in the painting] for as long as she could. I mean, it’s a very heavy robe so I was told that she could only be standing for about five to ten minutes – understandably. It requires four people to carry it!”
However, the effect, it would seem, is very much worth it. “It was an amazing experience,” Heimans recalls of meeting Her Majesty. “She was wearing [the robe], and when she first appeared down the end of the long corridor at Buckingham Palace, I was standing at one end and it was quite a long approach. The sun was streaming through the windows and she sort of sparkled as she passed every window, so it was quite a dramatic entrance!” But when the Queen finally reached Heimans, “she was a real person and there was this human dimension. I was struck by her warmth and her humanity, and that was a dimension I wanted to bring to the painting. When you see her face up close, there’s a lot of expression and soul in it. So that was the same experience that I wanted viewers [of the painting] to get – see the painting from afar and she has this sense of majesty, but come in closer and there’s a real sense of the individual – her humanity, what she’s thinking, what she’s feeling – to really involve the viewer in an emotional way.”
Heimans had his work cut out for himself, however. In addition to the quick timescale required to produce the work (just four months), he also had the logistical nightmare of subject and setting. “I think that the contextual dimension is often neglected,” the artist laments. “Portrait artists don’t often tackle the challenge of composition, but I think the choice of setting can be exciting and say a lot about a subject.” So why that particular spot in Westminster Abbey specifically? “It’s the epicentre of monarchy,” Heimans says. “That circle where the Queen is standing is the very spot where every monarch has been crowned for the past nine hundred years. She was crowned there on that very spot, so it’s very sacred and it’s like taking her back to where the story began.”
Story is an important element in Heimans’ works, and has always fascinated him. “My portraits are very narrative-based,” he agrees. “I always like to tell a story to connect the individual and the study of their character, with place and time. I enjoy playing with the narrative potential.”
So, where do you go as an artist following such a prestigious commission? “I’m doing a portrait of Sir Ben Kingsley, which is quite fun,” Heimans reveals. “I’m enjoying that. He has a great face. He’s a very spiritual man and we have a lovely connection.”
For Heimans, however, it’s his passion for his subjects (albeit a different sort of subject to those of a monarch) that remain his focus. “I love portraiture,” he smiles. “It’s something that I’ve chosen to do, and there’s love in the process.” Long live the portrait king!