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Glorious: A Diamond Jubilee portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The exhibition is a collection-based display representing The Queen in the early and late years of her glittering sixty-year reign. The highlight of the display is the unveiling of this year's only official painted portrait of The Queen, by Australian-born portraitist, Ralph Heimans. Shown for the first time, the portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in her Diamond Jubilee year will be displayed alongside works from the Gallery's collection of Australians upon whom The Queen has bestowed honours.

The Coronation Theatre, Westminster Abbey:
A Portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2012

by Ralph Heimans
On loan from the artist
Photo: Max Communications/Colin White
© Ralph Heimans

Double click the image to zoom in and see more detail.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, acceded to the throne in 1952 and was crowned in the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster (commonly known as Westminster Abbey) on 2 June 1953. That night, in a radio broadcast, she spoke of ‘the vast regions and varied peoples to whom I owe my duty’.

When Her Majesty came to Australia in 1954, it was the first time the country had been visited by a reigning monarch. On that occasion, The Queen opened Parliament in Canberra wearing her white wasp-waisted Coronation dress. She has made fifteen visits since. She came for the 50th anniversary of the naming of Canberra in 1963; for the bicentenary of James Cook’s Endeavour landing in 1970; to open the Sydney Opera House in 1973; to celebrate her Silver Jubilee in 1977; to attend the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in 1982; to open the new Parliament House in Canberra in 1988; to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2002; and to open the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006. She last visited in late 2011.

By the time The Queen came to the throne, many Australian citizens had received British Imperial honours. Throughout this gallery, surrounding the portraits of Her Majesty are portraits of Australians upon whom she conferred knighthoods or other special honours between 1953 and 1992.

The Australian honours system was introduced in 1975. For some years, meritorious Australians might be nominated for either a British or Australian honour – or both. Progressively, however, over the 1980s, the States ceased to recommend citizens for British honours. In 1992, the Federal and State governments announced that no longer would any Australian citizen be recommended for an Imperial award.

Australian-born artist Ralph Heimans proposed a portrait of The Queen on his own initiative, encouraged by his former portrait subject, The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG. In the middle of February 2012, although he had had no firm news from Buckingham Palace, Heimans travelled to London to develop his ideas. Soon, he found himself enthralled by the beauty and history of Westminster Abbey. It was there, at a Commonwealth Day service on 12 March, that he first saw Her Majesty in person. By then, he had received informal advice that his portrait might be approved. As he looked at her, he tried to imagine The Queen recalling her Coronation in the Abbey, and the weight of responsibility she was bound to feel on that day.

On 21 March 2012, when Heimans arrived at Buckingham Palace for a sitting in the Yellow Drawing Room, he learned that he had been allocated an hour, but Her Majesty would doubtless be pleased if he finished sooner. After fifty minutes’ work, he left with a resolved concept of the figure of The Queen and the reflective mood of the portrait. He wrote later that he found it inspiring to be in the presence of Her Majesty, and went forth ‘really wanting to produce my best work’.

Heimans’s portrait shows The Queen in her beloved Abbey, in the ‘Coronation Theatre’ before the High Altar, the lamps lit in the Quire behind her. She stands at the spot on which 38 British monarchs since 1066 have been crowned, near the circle of onyx at the centre of the recently restored thirteenth-century mosaic called the Cosmati Pavement. On her shoulders lies the Robe of State, which she wore for her Coronation, and she wears diamonds that belonged to Queen Victoria. The Queen stands alone; for, the artist says, ‘even when she is surrounded by people she cuts something of a solitary figure. She has had such a unique and singular experience on this earth.’

Ralph Heimans discusses the portrait

30 minute video, transcript available

Ralph Heimans discusses his Diamond Jubilee portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Heimans’ experience of painting the royal portrait in 2012 begins with the proposal to the Palace, and includes meeting with The Queen’s Diary Secretary, two nights at the Abbey, the sitting at Buckingham Palace and the painting process. This includes a discussion of the famous Cosmati Pavement, consideration of the jewels and robe for the portrait, and the scale and composition of the work including the technical importance of the choice of materials.

Heimans describes himself as a ‘narrative portraitist’ and his approach breaks new ground in Royal portraiture. His experience of the commission to paint the official portrait of Crown Princess Mary of Denmark in 2006 informed his ambition for the Diamond Jubilee portrait. In this presentation Heimans details the intensive three and a half month process of creating the portrait of Her Majesty.

The Order of Merit

The Order of Merit, denoted by the letters OM, is a special honour awarded as the sole gift of the Sovereign. Founded by King Edward VII at the time of his coronation in 1902, the Order was to be ‘given to such persons, subjects of Our Crown, as may have rendered exceptionally meritorious services in Our Crown Services or towards the advancement of the Arts, Learning, Literature, and Science or such other exceptional service as We are fit to recognise’. There can only be 24 living citizens of Great Britain and the Commonwealth with the Order of Merit at any one time, in addition to one or two few foreign recipients.

Past British holders of the Order of Merit have included Florence Nightingale; TS Eliot; Graham Greene; Sir Winston Churchill; and Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Foreign recipients include General Eisenhower; Mother Teresa of Calcutta; and Nelson Mandela.

Australian members of the Order of Merit include those whose portraits hang on this wall, as well as Sir Owen Dixon; Lord Florey; and Lord May of Oxford. John Howard is the most recent Australian recipient.

Sir Robert Menzies was appointed a Knight of the Thistle – a higher honour than the Order of Merit - in 1963.

The title Companion of Honour, written as CH, ranks just below the Order of Merit. Companions are limited to 65 living citizens of the Commonwealth. Since 1954, Australian Companions of Honour have included Sir William Bragg; Sir John McEwen; Sir John Gorton; Sir William McMahon; Sir Charles Mackerras; Harold Holt; and Essington Lewis (who refused recommendation for a knighthood).

Malcolm Fraser and Doug Anthony are the only living Australian Companions of Honour.

The new Order

The Australian honours system was introduced during the Labor prime ministership of Gough Whitlam, in 1975. For some years, meritorious Australians might be nominated for either a British or Australian honour – or both. Gradually, however, the States ceased to recommend citizens for British honours, and in 1992, the Federal and State governments announced once and for all that Australians would no longer be recommended for Imperial awards.

In 1976, on the advice of Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, The Queen made provision for Knights and Dames of the Order of Australia, denoted by the letters AK and AD respectively. Knights of the Order of Australia in this gallery comprise Sir John Kerr (the first to receive the honour); Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Colin Syme, Sir Zelman Cowen, Sir Charles Court and Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. Only twelve knights and two dames were created before the elevated category was scrapped on the advice of Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1986. The only living Knights of the Order of Australia are Sir Ninian Stephen and The Prince of Wales.

Since 1986 the highest honour in the Australian system has been the Companion of the Order of Australia, or AC. Companions of the Order of Australia, many of whom hold Imperial honours, are distributed throughout this room; but every one of the portrait subjects on the west and north walls is a Companion of the Order of Australia.

There are many more Companions to be found throughout other spaces of the National Portrait Gallery. Both of the Gallery’s Founding Patrons, Gordon Darling AC CMG and Marilyn Darling AC, are Companions of the Order of Australia.

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