The oil portrait, done in Colin Davidson’s strikingly distinctive style which is closely focused on the subject’s face, was unveiled tonight by the Queen at a ceremony in London.
In an interview with the News Letter, Mr Davidson, a graduate of the University of Ulster, said that he did not want to do anything to “demean” the Queen, but that he also believed that he had to be “honest with myself ... and that I wanted to paint what I saw and what I felt; I didn’t want to make an artificial painting in any way”.
He added: “I was also very aware as essentially an Irishman – as in I’m Irish because I live on the island of Ireland – there was a whole other dimension not just to the physical painting but also to the significance and the symbolism of where we were in the Anglo-Irish relationship.
“I was very conscious of that and there was a certain weight of responsibility in this painting; this wasn’t just going to be viewed as another painter’s view of the Queen – it was very much going to be seen as an Irishman’s view of the Queen.”
The painter said he was “absolutely” nervous about the commission and that “the gravity of the situation weighs upon you, as well as the responsibility” because the painting “is going to be seen and is going to be judged”.
The painting is the first portrait of the Queen since she turned 90 in April.
Although Mr Davidson is reluctant to interpret his work, preferring the viewer to see in it what they will, the monarch is not wearing a crown in the artwork and there is a grandmotherly, as well as a regal, aspect to the portrayal.
The painting was commissioned by Co-operation Ireland, of which the Queen is a joint patron, and it was unveiled at Crosby Hall, the Chelsea mansion of Co-operation Ireland chairman Christopher Moran.
As well as the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, the event was symbolically attended by the first and deputy first ministers – the fifth time that Martin McGuinness has met the Queen.
Speaking ahead of the event, Mr Davidson joked: “Depending on her reaction [when she unveils the portrait], I’ll either be at the front of the room or the back of the room.”
The painting will be owned by Co-operation Ireland and hung in Crosby Hall but Mr Davidson is hopeful that it can be toured around venues in Ireland and the UK.
Mr Davidson said it was “critically important to me not to contrive” a reaction from the subject, and that he always allows the sitter to instigate the conversation.
He said that sometimes there are also periods of quietness in the room “which are very important”.
Although the painter – who last year painted German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the front cover of Time Magazine – spent around two hours one to one with the Queen, he is reluctant to reveal much of what they discussed.
“What I will say is that the Queen did quite obviously desire to make me as a person as comfortable as possible, and whilst it’s obvious that I’m out of depth in a situation like that – most people would be – I think she was incredibly gracious in essentially welcoming me into her home and making life as easy as possible.”
However, Mr Davidson said that the Queen had drawn his attention to a link to Ireland just outside the walls of the grand drawing room in which she sat.
“It was just a very special morning from the start.
“Because of the timing of the sitting, the changing of the guard was happening outside and we could hear that the whole way through.
“The Queen was very aware that it was the Irish Guards and was talking about how appropriate that was.”
Mr Davidson said that he had been told that he was the first Northern Irish artist to paint the Queen.
Art expert and veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie said that he did not believe that any other Irish artist – from either side of the border – had ever painted the Queen.
He told the News Letter that works by Belfast-born Tom Carr had been in the late Queen Mother’s collection, but that “to my knowledge no Irish painter ever had the opportunity to paint the Queen”.
He added: “In terms of the prestige attached to painting the Queen, in terms of exposure and in terms of relevance, it is quite remarkable; it is an extraordinary opportunity. It is a rare, rare honour and a very considerable opportunity for an Irish painter.”
Mr Mallie described the painting itself as a “very formidable, uncompromising portrait”, adding that “there’s a muscularity about it which is an aspect of the current phase of his work”.
Mr Davidson – who has painted numerous high-profile figures, including Brad Pitt, Seamus Heaney and Ian Paisley – said that it had never crossed his mind that he would be asked to paint Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
“I hadn’t even dreamt of it – I really hadn’t ... it’s very much that the opportunity was put to me.
“In terms of fame and in terms of recognition, I suppose it can’t rank any higher. On the other hand, there has to be an element with every painting that I do ... that I need to have seen not just an actor or a musician or the monarch, but I need to have seen a human being as well.
“That, I think, is what I’m striving for with every painting that I make.”
Mr Davidson, whose studio is in Crawfordsburn, expressed the hope that his painting would contribute to good relations between the UK and Ireland.
“I’m very aware of the symbolism. I would want to reiterate that I’ve witnessed the Queen in her actions advancing healing in the Anglo-Irish relationship.
“It would be a hope of mine that this painting would in some small way help acknowledge her contribution.
“That is my personal desire for it.”