The Queen and I

By Lorenza Bacino

Ralph Heimans has just finished painting a portrait of the Queen. He reflects on the tension, protocol and excitement of a unique experience.
Image of Ralph Heimans

A hint of shadow below the eyes and a few unruly curls are the only outward signs that portrait artist Ralph Heimans is under pressure. The stubble appears to be more through choice than any oversight on his part.

We meet via Skype on computer, which opens a window into his studio at a secret location in south London. It’s here that Heimans, who completed a BA in 1992 (majoring in Fine Arts and Pure Mathematics), is working on his most ambitious project to date – the largest official portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in commemoration of her Diamond Jubilee.

Despite this awesome task, his manner is relaxed, his smile friendly and he laughs heartily and often throughout our chat. Nevertheless, there’s a strong sense that I’m an intruder in his private space and interrupting the flow of his work.

No-one is allowed to see the painting. It’s safely tucked away beyond the realms of Skype. But the computer camera reveals the studio as surprisingly clean, its floors gleaming and not a splat of paint to be seen. “I’m paranoid about dust,” he laughs. “It can get lodged in the paint so I must have a tidy studio. I’m disorganised in every other aspect of my life, but my studio is very organised.”

The painting is to be unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra in October, so time and secrecy are of the essence. “It’s pretty full on at the moment,” admits Heimans. “I’m locking myself away and just painting. I’m almost at the point when food is delivered under the door on trays. I get in at nine in the morning and I don’t leave till 2am sometimes.”

"I’m paranoid about dust. I’m disorganised in every other aspect of my life, but my studio is very organised."

The 42-year-old painter has to juggle this strenuous work rhythm with the demands of family life. “My little girls are nearly one and nearly two. When they come to my studio, I’m afraid. Everything I use is toxic. I use lead white and mercury red, so I’m terrified they’re going to touch something nasty. But the only relaxation I get at the moment is with them so I love having them in London with me.”

Heimans is in his element in Europe, having spent 11 years living in Paris, and four in London. The cosmopolitan European lifestyle has had a profound influence on his work. “The Dutch tradition is steeped in painting. For me, Rembrandt is the Grand Master with a humanity and insight into the human condition, which is rare. As far as portrait painters go, he’s unsurpassed.”

The beauty of European cities has captured Heimans’ heart. “I need to know there’s a Rembrandt round the corner. It’s a nice feeling to be able to access inspirational art work whenever you feel the need. The beauty nourishes your soul and that in turn nourishes your art.”

Image of Ralph Heimans

Ralph Heimans, A Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A confidential process

London and the royal commission are a world away from his days as a student at Sydney, when he toyed with architecture in an attempt to marry his love of pure maths and fine arts. The fine arts and maths won him over in the end. His first-ever commission was from his history of architecture lecturer, Trevor Howells. The painting still hangs at the University and it was from this point on that his career took off. Heimans started painting one portrait after another.

“Architecture and mathematical aspects are important parts of my work. Perspective, geometry and reflection are strong, recurring themes. I love to exploit the crossover between art and maths and my mathematical background has given me the tools to tackle problems. It helps me think logically, which is important, as I base my work on an empirical observation of nature.”

Heimans had plenty of time for observation during the 18 months of negotiation leading up to the portrait sitting. Yet when the green light finally arrived, he had only 10 days to prepare for his 60-minute slot with the Queen. “We were kept hanging for a while by the Palace but when I received an informal email suggesting that it would go ahead, the project shifted to the ‘diary secretary’ and I decided I should head over to London as I felt it was imminent.”

The artist says many conditions were imposed, and the process has been very confidential. “The Palace wanted control of the press release, understandably.” Although his experience painting Princess Mary of Denmark (2006) gave him a taste of royal protocol, he says this project is on another level altogether.

That made the surprises even sweeter when they occurred. “I was told the Queen would not be in formal attire due to time constraints and other commitments. So when she appeared in full regalia, complete with diamonds and her footman holding the train, I was left speechless. It took her five minutes to walk down the corridor of Buckingham Palace and the light reflecting off the diamonds as she walked was amazing.”

"When she appeared in full regalia, complete with diamonds and her footman holding the train, I was left speechless."

But after such a long build-up, Heimans had developed a clear idea of what he wanted to capture at the brief sitting. “As a portrait painter, I have to get a quick impression of somebody and I think after 20 years, I’ve developed a good insight into trying to understand people’s essence. In the short time available, you can only be faithful to your own vision, your own feeling about somebody,” he explains. “Also, you can learn a lot from listening to the subject on how they want to be represented. It isn’t good if too much comes from the artist and not enough from the subject.

Image of Heimans

Ralph Heimans, Portrait of HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, 2006

Capturing a landmark moment

Has it been hard to capture the Queen’s essence and getting behind the mask of the public persona, given that she famously never reveals her innermost thoughts? Heimans is silent and puts his head in his hands. “Ah ... it’s difficult to answer without giving too much away and it’s a big challenge. I had a particular mood I wanted to capture in the sitting, so my ideas had to be well thought out and approved by the Palace in advance. I wanted a particularly reflective Queen, because her Diamond Jubilee is a landmark moment, so I took that as a guide. The whole sitting had a dreamlike quality.

He says he wanted to set the painting in a particular place “which I can’t reveal until the painting is unveiled. But it required me to set the scene, so we talked a bit about the National Portrait Gallery and how happy I was that this painting will be exhibited there. She definitely has a fondness for Australia, and maybe that’s why this was allowed to happen. “I was struck by how incredible she looked. You think you know what the Queen looks like, but really she has an aura and an incredible presence. I think there was a degree of creative understanding, she’s a seasoned sitter, she knows what an artist needs, and I was so focused on the moment. But I did need to communicate the aspect of history I wanted for the painting.”

Heimans considers himself lucky to have been given access to the Queen this year. No other artist has had that privilege at this special time. “The Queen is so very busy in her jubilee year. It’s crazy that an 85-year-old lady could be that intensely busy."

Is he nervous? “Of course I am. It’s a huge commission. You can’t get a bigger commission as an artist. I have so many people waiting on the results and I’m working with the big institutions such as the Palace and the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a huge potential break in any artist’s career.”

Besides the Queen’s fondness for Australia, another contributing factor in clinching the commission came in the form of a helping hand from his influential friend and one-time subject, Michael Kirby. In fact, he says that the former High Court judge was instrumental in getting the gallery in Canberra on board in support of his bid to paint the Queen.

Heimans’s 1997 portrait of Kirby, titled Radical Restraint, is one of three works by the artist on display in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a work that’s always generated interest because of its play with time and context. Kirby’s companions in the painting are judges he never actually worked with and come from another era. Others are dead. “For me, the context is just as important as the subject,” explains Heimans. “I like to engage the viewer. To get what I want, I need to immerse myself in the physical world my subjects inhabit.”

"I like to engage the viewer. To get what I want, I need to immerse myself in the physical world my subjects inhabit."

In his portrait of Crown Princess Mary, Heimans also played with the context and transformed the actual surroundings to reflect the reality of her Hobart origins. But he had much more time to plan his vision, making seven trips to Denmark to prepare with Princess Mary. “I was the artist in residence, and as such I had the room which has the best view in Denmark, over the moat. It was a wonderful time in my life and I made a lot of good friends at the Museum [of Natural History, Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark]. They were like a family to me and we’d sit down to meals together. I felt completely immersed in the world I was painting. I try to use the sittings to say as much about the subject as the figure itself.”

In terms of restrictions, some of his suggestions regarding Princess Mary’s outfit were rejected as “too figure hugging” so in the end he has her wearing a smart suit to please the establishment.

He confirms that the concept of the Queen’s portrait will also include similar playful elements of time and place. The setting is symbolic and rich in meaning. “All I can say for now is that I have altered the context and it’s based on an actual place. I think I’m always developing new narrative devices and ways of telling a story. This painting should represent a great evolution – it’s the most challenging work compositionally that I’ve ever done.”