Colin Davidson’s Royal portrait: Painting’s origins in McGuinness handshake

Lyric Theatre chairman Mark Carruthers showing the Queen some of Colin Davidsons paintings in 2012
Lyric Theatre chairman Mark Carruthers showing the Queen some of Colin Davidsons paintings in 2012

The origins of Colin Davidson’s portrait of the Queen lie in an event where the focus was not on the artist – even though his work was on display for the monarch.

In June 2012, the Queen visited the Lyric Theatre in south Belfast for an event hosted by Co-operation Ireland.

Colin Davidson pictured with the painting in his Co Down studio before it left for London last month

Colin Davidson pictured with the painting in his Co Down studio before it left for London last month

Colin Davidson was asked to display five of his portraits for viewing by the Royal party, as well as Irish President Michael D Higgins and Stormont’s first and deputy first ministers.

However, an event of far greater political significance was unfolding elsewhere in the building on the banks of the River Lagan.

The deputy first minister, former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, was meeting – and shaking the hand of – the Queen, the first time that a Sinn Fein member had done so.

The image of that handshake – one of the iconic visual moments of the peace process – went around the world. Mr Davidson said that last year he had received a phone call “asking me if I would consider making a painting of the Queen for Co-operation Ireland” as the Queen and the Irish president are joint patrons of the body.

“I naturally said it would be a privilege and an honour and then in April I got another phone call saying to me ‘it’s in two weeks’ time’.”

The artist visited Buckingham Palace several times to decide on which room in which he would like the Queen to sit for the portrait, with his prime consideration being the light in each setting.

Eventually, he settled on the Yellow Drawing Room at the front of the palace, a location used by several other painters for Royal portraits, for the morning sitting.

The painter said that he “wasn’t terribly interested in the background” because his style of portrait is so focused in on the subject’s face.

The protocol for a Royal portrait is that the palace asks the painter what they would like the subject to wear. But Mr Davidson said that he had decided to leave the choice in her hands.

“I think that got us off to a good start in the whole thing,” he said, adding “that was no different to what I have done in the past ... I will always say ‘you decide’ because what a person chooses to wear says so much about them rather than what they are told to wear”.

In the end, perhaps in a nod to the Irish aspect of the portrait, the Queen chose to be attired in turquoise green.

His paintings take months to complete at his studio in Crawfordsburn.

“In some ways, apart from the location, I didn’t physically treat it any differently from any painting that I’d made in the past. I know what my best process is and I decided not to be deterred from implementing that.

“During the sitting – an hour and a half to two hours – I make about 30 very quick shorthand drawings, as I call them, where I’m just constantly looking at the face, at the nuances of how the face works, at the structure of the face, at how the light falls on the face, at how the face displays being relaxed or at ease or how the face reflects the sitter thinking his or her own thoughts ... it was no different from that.

“The camera is there as well. I have a camera on a tripod which is quite far back and every so often by remote control I take a couple of shots – those are aide memoire shots.

“I bring everything back to the studio and I build up a drawing in the studio ... and I work the drawing up into the painting.”

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