Anecdote - Artist Painting Queen Elizabeth's Portrait in 1962

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Hello, I’m Paul Barton. I’m a freelance artist and part of the YouTube piano community. As a British citizen and long-time resident in Thailand, I’d like to join with other expats around the world at this time in offering my respects on the occasion of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

On learning the sad news the other day, reflecting here, far from home, I was reminded of an anecdote dating back to my art school days in London, as told to me by my teacher at that time, the artist Peter Greenham. This anecdote relates specifically to a portrait he painted of the Queen in 1962 when the Queen was 36-years-old. This portrait is quite unknown to the public today as far as oil painting portraits of the moment go, so I’d like to share it with you in this video and tell you a little bit about the artist who painted it with the aim to put the anecdote in context.

Peter Greenham was born in London in 1909. As mentioned, he was my teacher back in 1977 when I entered the Royal Academy of Schools aged 16. I’d come down to study in London with him from my home in East Yorkshire in the north of England. I remember there was some concern initially from my father that 16 was still quite young to live alone in London, but I didn’t feel young and thought nothing of it.

I remember late one evening when all the students had gone home, Peter Greenham sat down with me and we talked about the life of a portrait painter, which is what he was and I wanted to be. He told me art commissions as a way of making a living mostly go well, but sometimes the style of a contemporary artist and the expectations of a client don’t always fit well together, as was the case with his portrait of the Queen painted around the time I was born.

Out of respect, I can’t bring myself to refer to Peter Greenham coldly by his just his surname as we tend to do when referring to artists as he was far too kind to me and was a fatherly figure during my student days. He completely changed my life for the better. So please indulge me as I use his full name throughout this video.

Peter Greenham, CBE, at that time in 1977 was the keeper of the Royal Academy schools. He was a highly respected portrait and landscape artist. As a young teenager, long before I’d met him, I cut out and kept his portraits from the artist magazine when they were featured from time to time. Here’s a portrait of one of his pupils, Eric Herrborn, painted in 1959. The artist, Eric Herrborn, had a colourful career as an artist turned art forger, but that’s another story.

For those unfamiliar, the Royal Academy of Arts is in London. It has a president and a keeper. The president’s role doesn’t extend to actually teaching art students. At the time I was there, Sir Hugh Casson, a renowned architect, was the academy’s president. The keeper is the head of the Royal Academy schools and responsible for the art training of students. There wasn’t that many students in the schools when I was there. I think around 45 full time. This meant a number of established artists working in London would be invited by the keeper to coach students for a day or so during each week, according to each individual student’s style of work.

As I was one of the few that wanted to be a portrait painter, I studied with Peter Greenham himself and he took me under his wing, so to speak. Peter Greenham was a well known artist in London at the time. He was also considered to be an artist’s artist. He received many private portrait commissions, which he did in addition to his teaching work at the schools. Sometimes if he had too many commissions to do at the same time, he would kindly pass one or two over to me.

Peter Greenham was a very private man. Students only got to see his new paintings when they were exhibited annually at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Historically, the keeper had the use of a studio at the academy, up many flights of dimly lit stairs accessed only from the library. It was a wonderful room. The stuff of art legends students were insanely curious about, but rarely if ever got to see for themselves.

Most notably, to me, it had a gigantic north facing window, a magnificent antique studio easel and a grand piano covered in a clutter of books, scores and sketches. There was very little space to move around, even though the room was huge due to the sheer quantity of books and paintings of all shapes and sizes in various states of finish, leaning one against the other, crammed together around the room. There was an old metal framed single bed covered in itchy grey blankets, which also doubled as the only seat in the room for visitors, except for the grand elevated chair behind the easel reserved for portrait visitors. This was where Peter Greenham slept during the week.

Peter Greenham and I shared a love of the piano. He played very well and had taken lessons from the mother of Ernest Gombrick, a name familiar to all art students as the author of the classic, The Story of Art. Sometimes late evening when the models had gone home, I would get invited up to the studio to play his piano while he worked on his paintings. I didn’t have a piano to play of my own during my student year, so those occasions felt very special to me. And as I remember, I mostly played Bach for him.

Each Friday evening, Peter Greenham headed home from London to Oxford in a rusty old unwashed white Volvo, which he parked close and in stark contrast to the grand historic formal public entrance to the Royal Academy of Arts. This tatty old car was very much in keeping with Peter Greenham’s rebellious tastes in all things material, especially metal and mechanical. That’s to say, the neglected appearance of this car didn’t matter to him one bit. Once more, he loved the colour of rust. And additionally, he considered washing it to be a waste of time. Time better spent painting pictures. He had an idiosyncratic sense of what mattered in life and what didn’t. For example, clothes and material possessions meant little or nothing to him. All he cared about was drawing and painting and teaching those that wanted to learn how to draw and paint, too.

Here’s the crux of the story to follow. Some that paid attention to such things described Peter Greenham’s personal appearance as somewhat dishevelled and neglected and were put off looking beyond that at the man and the artist. That said, these things mattered little to his wife, the artist Jane Dowling. They had two children, David and Mary. His family were often the subjects of his paintings done mainly in his studio in London from pencil sketches made at their home in Oxford or during holidays in France. This was an intentional way of working in oils from drawings and very much part of his loose semi-abstract painterly style.

Back to that quiet evening as a new student, Peter Greenham talking with me about the life of a portrait painter. He told me this short anecdote about his portrait of the Queen. As I don’t think it’s recorded anywhere, I’d like to preserve the memory of it and share it with you.

First, here’s Peter Greenham’s portrait of the Queen, which he described modestly as a study. It relates to a double portrait he painted of the Queen and Prince Philip commissioned by the Welsh Guards in 1962. It was first exhibited in 1964 and unfortunately the reaction to it at that time was described as causing trouble amounting to a royal controversy. This beautiful painterly portrait is one of the few oil portraits of the Queen painted entirely from life. Normally the Queen granted a few sittings to an artist from life and the artist would go on to finish the work from photographs usually in black and white in his or her own studio. But that wasn’t the case with Peter Greenham’s portrait.

When it was unveiled the Welsh Guards who commissioned it didn’t like the loose style of brushwork and instead of the painting going on to be hung in public for all to see as intended it ended up completely vanishing. Few knew of its whereabouts, only Peter Greenham and his students knew the painting was stored halfway up that dark staircase to his studio at the academy with its face to the wall well hidden behind other paintings. You had to be very close to Peter Greenham to ever get a glimpse of the portrait at least with his knowledge and permission.

The controversy around the unveiling and stark rejection of the portrait by those that commissioned it had somewhat shaken Peter Greenham’s confidence but thankfully it didn’t take away his love of painting for long. Peter Greenham told me that at that time the portrait was commissioned the Queen was aware of and understood he didn’t paint from reference photographs and she sympathized with his reasoning as to why. So to be accommodating the Queen granted him many more sittings from life than she normally did to other artists. A mutual friend told me the Queen had also been pleased to grant extra sittings as she very much enjoyed his company and described him as a good and amusing conversationalist.

Peter Greenham was a shy man he was known especially for his humility as the guards at the gate of Buckingham Palace were to discover for themselves. The Royal Academy of Arts is situated in Piccadilly near Green Park. Buckingham Palace is just a short walk across Green Park from the academy. They are in effect almost neighbours.

On the day of Peter Greenham’s first sitting with the Queen he opted for a walk across Green Park with his box of paints and brushes rather than take a taxi as the palace was so close. The huge canvas for the portrait had gone on ahead and was on a needle at Buckingham Palace waiting for him. When he arrived at the imposing palace gates on foot in advance of the appointed time of the sitting he introduced himself as an artist to the guards and told them he had come to paint the Queen.

The young guards in their smart red and black uniforms looked him up and down. On that day Peter Greenham happened to have a scruffy old piece of string holding up his trousers instead of a belt and was wearing worn out carpet slippers instead of shoes. He felt comfortable painting in these clothes and slippers and explained to me he couldn’t paint properly in anything else especially smart new clothes and shoes which he said made him feel restricted.

So as Peter Greenham’s appearance was so very far from what the guards expected a visitor to the Queen would be wearing they assumed he was a homeless tramp and told him to take a hike and suggested a walk around Green Park. Peter Greenham was not the argumentative or assertive type and as the guards wouldn’t be persuaded to let him through the gates he did just as he was told he went off for a walk around the park.

After some time passed the Queen sitting alone besides the canvas on the easel ran down to the guards at the gate and asked if they’d seen Peter Greenham the artist she was waiting for to paint her portrait that day as he was surprisingly late. They said no but had seen a tramp claiming to have an appoint with her majesty and they sent him off for a walk in the park. The Queen explained it was surely the artist Peter Greenham and asked them to quickly run after him and bring him back which they did. They found him humbly wandering the park carrying his box of paints just as they had told him to do.

Apparently the Queen found the whole episode quite amusing as it turned out the Queen with real majesty did look past Peter Greenham’s scruffy appearance and only saw the man and the artist as some others were unable to do and totally understood sympathized with and accepted the way he felt most comfortably dressed when working on his portraits at the palace. It said of all the many artists that painted the Queen’s portrait over the years Peter Greenham was one of her personal favourites.

Here’s what was written about the Peter Greenham’s portrait of the Queen when it was first exhibited in 1964 and rejected by the Welsh guards that commissioned it. The painting was not shown again until the National Portrait Gallery staged its exhibition Elizabeth II portraits of 60 years in 1986.

The critic Peter Watson writing in the Observer described it as portraying the Queen as insecure, sad, ambivalent and melancholy and wondered whether it showed that she had some worry which was kept from the public. The curator of the exhibition Malcolm Rogers saw this sense of uncertainty as positive making the portrait all the more fascinating. He described it as an impression rather than a strict portrait which in its fragile atmosphere and shy characterization recalls the ambivalence of Goya’s royal portraits.

As a former student of Peter Greenham I’d just like to add that he just squinted his eyes when he painted. It was a method widely used by figurative artists to simplify the subject when drawing a painting so as to concentrate on the essentials of the form rather than be distracted by details on the surface.

What was courageous about the painting for me is that it was made entirely from life, from observation. Paintings that don’t rely on reference photos for detailed work back in the studio do tend to look loose and painterly like this because of the limited time granted for sittings. The gown was painted partly in Peter Greenham’s studio placed on a mannequin carefully positioned in the same north facing window light as at the palace as portrait artists working from life had done for centuries past so as not to take up the sis’s time unnecessarily on those specific aspects of the portrait.

Finally, I do so hope this beautiful portrait gets a proper home if it hasn’t already done so. Peter Greenham passed away in 1992 and I’m far away from these things in London now and well out of touch. That said I’ve noticed tastes in figurative art have changed since the portrait was painted around 1960 so I have every confidence this beautiful work painted from life of the young Queen Elizabeth II is finally getting the appreciation it deserves. Thanks for listening stay safe.