Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
The Diamond Jubilee anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II, marking her 60 years on the throne, is an occasion Phil Richards isn’t soon to forget.
The Scarborough artist was commissioned back in 2010 by the federal government to paint the official state portrait of Her Majesty to hang in Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
“I always wanted to paint the Queen,” said Richards on Saturday at City Hall. “But I never thought I would get to do it.”
Richards was joined by retired news anchor and Stratford native, Lloyd Robertson, for the first of two events held over the weekend by Stratford Summer Music to commemorate the anniversary. The celebration finished Sunday with a performance by the Tactus Vocal Ensemble that was accompanied by film footage from the Queen’s coronation ceremony in 1952.
After being contacted about the project, Richards submitted his portfolio and made a shortlist that was sent to Buckingham Palace for the Queen to look over and select an artist.
Richards told Robertson – the honourary summer music president - he was not intimidated by the prospect of painting perhaps the most iconic figure in the world.
“It had been such a long-term dream of mine. I didn’t see it as intimidating. It was just such a wonderful opportunity.”
The final painting depicts the Queen in Rideau Hall, a portrait of the her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, hanging in the background. Her left hand rests on a desk with her finger pointing towards a document – the British North American Act – the first paragraph of which has been painted with such detail it can be read.
Richards said Rideau Hall was chosen as the setting for its grandeur and domesticity. The alternative of a parliament building was “too cold and institutional,” he noted.
In July of 2010, Richards met and photographed the Queen in Ottawa. It was his only sit-down session he had with her throughout the entire two-year process.
While those photographs served as the basis for his portrait, Richards went to great lengths to make sure his painting recreated everything – his subject, the setting, the lighting and shadows – as accurately a possible. Working off of the photographs, Richards went through several preliminary sketches and paintings, and even created a sculpture of the Queen that he painted and dressed up with a necklace and tiara.
“This was very important having this,” noted Richards. “I’d experiment and light it in ways I wanted for the painting.”
Almost a year after he started the project, Richards went to Buckingham Palace where he photographed the dress that the Queen wanted for the portrait on a mannequin. He also spent 45 minutes with the Queen going over his progress.
“I showed the Queen this sketch,” he recalled, pointing to one of the maquettes on display in the auditorium, “and I told her this was what I was aiming for, this expressed what I wanted to do in her portrait.
“And she looked at it and said, ‘Oh, I like that. You made me look friendly.’”
At his studio, Richards constructed a one-twelfth architectural model, with Queen and furniture, to see how the space reacted to the lighting. The setting was also reconstructed as a three-dimensional environment on the computer, which gave Richards the ability to alter the perspective without having to paint a new portrait each time.
“It’s an elaborate but I think it’s a rational process,” said Richards of how he arrived at the final portrait. “The idea is to work out ideas on a small scale first, so that you don’t get to the final painting and start changing things.”
The portrait itself, which stands at six feet by nine feet, took Richards about three and a half months, and was painted from the background to the foreground, so the last image to appear on the canvas was that of the Queen.
Richards said the toughest part of the portrait was recreating one of the most recognizable faces in the world, noting the Queen has a very symmetrical face without any defining features. He also wanted to paint a face that accurately portrayed the Queen’s age – 85 at the time.
“One thing I’m quite proud of achieving with this face is that when you get up close to it it looks like an older face, you can see the lines are there,” he said. “But when you move back further from the painting the face seems to get younger and younger.”
While every piece of the portrait had to be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office, Heritage Canada and Buckingham Palace, Richards said he wanted to add something special for the Queen that no one knew about. He added a pair of corgis, the Queen’s beloved dogs, just above the chair.
He he didn’t tell anyone about them until the portrait’s official unveiling this summer. Luckily for him, the Queen approved.
“When she saw it she laughed,” he said.
Asked by Robertson what the Queen was really like, Richards said she was charming.
“She was friendly, she was relaxed and she was engaged. She liked the depth of the process I had gone through.”
And, he added, “she laughed at a couple of my jokes.”