Colin Davidson, an acclaimed Irish painter famed for his large-format portraits, was commissioned to paint the Queen for a landmark picture this year.
The work was begun shortly after her 90th birthday.
Davidson’s extraordinary final picture, measuring five by four feet, was unveiled by the Monarch herself—who gave a brief but unmistakable smile of approval as she did the honors—at an event in Chelsea last week.
Belfast born-artist Davidson—who has painted many iconic public figures, including actors Liam Neeson and Brad Pitt, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nobel Laureate poet Seamus Heaney—told The Daily Beast that while “every painting that I make of a head is different from everything else” he concedes that he “was aware of three particular aspects that were different from anything” he had done before with this project.
“Firstly, simply, was the fact that I was painting the Queen. The Queen’s face is probably the most famous face in the world. There are very few people living now who wouldn’t recognize that particular image. I needed to be aware and respectful of the office, the position, the stature; the fact that here was somebody who has, in my own personal view, given 63 years of public service.
“The second aspect was that I felt there was a symbolism in the fact that an Irishman was painting the Queen, given all that the Crown means, particularly in Ireland. I was very aware that we have reached a point in Anglo-Irish relations where the Queen wanted to invite an Irishman to the palace to paint her. That wouldn’t have happened even ten years ago, at least I don’t think it would have. I was very aware of the huge contributions that the Queen has made towards advancing healing in the Anglo-Irish relationship.
“And then the third aspect is that I’m painting a human being as well. I have got to bring the honesty that I attempt to bring to everything that I paint to this painting as well, and stay true to that.”
Davidson says that while he is huge fan of the relatively recent portraits of the Queen by Lucien Freud and the holographic images created by Chris Levine, as a painter he sought to distance himself from the canon of royal portraiture when approaching the work. “You can’t not be aware of it, but you’ve got to try to put that out of your mind as a painter and stay true to yourself and attempt not to be aware of how you might fit into the canon. That’s for other people to discuss.”
The gigantic scale of Davidson’s paintings acts like a magnifying mirror, but rather than merely emphasizing imperfection, Davidson’s close-ups demonstrates the absolute humanity of his subjects, and the Monarch is no exception.
Her skin is lined, her eyes a little watery, flesh folds around the mouth. But unlike the Freud which was, many thought, a savage allegory on the fallibility of the Queen’s human form as opposed to her role as the Crown, Davidson’s piece is a more tender and compassionate piece of work.
The extraordinary scale of the painting is striking, and, as Davidson says, it means, “You can’t evade the face, you can’t avoid it. Whenever it’s that scale and that size and you’re in close quarters with it, it’s not something that you can miss.
“I want to paint everybody as an equal human being. That’s what my practice has been about. And whenever you’re painting a human face at that scale as an artist you’re allowing it to become something else. It becomes landscape, a sort of landscape of the face.”
And of that landscape of that particular face, the Queen’s face, what really stood out to him?
“As a human being, you’re just aware that somebody who is 90 years old has a lifetime of experience. The wisdom that she’s built up through those experiences, through that life, that is certainly part of the landscape of the face.
“As I was talking to the Queen, and she was talking to me, I became very aware of her wit, so I didn’t want this to be a portrait which was in any way somber. So I caught the moment when I felt she was just about to break into a smile.
“That happened a lot, throughout the sitting itself. And that was why that was the moment I chose to paint.”
Often we think of portraiture as being a kind of composite image of many hours spent with the sitter, but Davidson seems to regard his picture as more photographic in nature, a snapshot in time.
“My work is nearly the antithesis of classical portraiture,” he says, “With classical portraiture, particularly if you look at the royal portraits pre-photography, you know, we are told very much as viewers what to think.
“Often, the sitter is looking—maybe on horseback or standing or whatever—directly at us in the middle of the engagement. The sitter is aware that we are in the room, the sitter is aware that we are looking at them.
“My work is the opposite. In my painting of the Queen; the Queen is unaware of us being in the room. The Queen is unaware of us being there. So, we are in some ways, possibly intruding on private thought, we are witness to the sitter as she is, in her own time, with her thoughts.”
Davidson was given about two hours ‘face time’ with the Queen, and employed a small camera in a fixed position operated by “a little remote control” as an aide memoire.
“I make about 20 or 30, very quick, shorthand drawings; they are just little automatic drawings of the sitter,” says Davidson. “She didn’t have to pose or give me her best side. It was just simply about me getting to see the nuances of how the face works.”