AP – In the spring of 2012, portrait artist Ralph Heimans stood on the Cosmati pavement of Westminster Abbey and awaited the subject of his latest commission, Queen Elizabeth II. When she approached, he says, it was an extraordinary moment.
“She was wearing her Robe of State, with four footmen holding it, and as she came down the long corridor it was a very theatrical kind of entrance,” Heimans said soon after he had learned that the queen had died last Thursday at age 96.
After spending an hour with the queen, “discussing niceties”, he came away with “a sense of how thoughtful she was, almost a sense of shyness, an introspective quality”.
In his oil painting, which hangs in Westminster, he drew her as a solitary, even brooding figure, her eyes cast down, with the vastness of Westminster behind her like so much weight from the past – and present.
“I wanted to show her in this private moment, with a certain gravity about her,” he said.
Over the past 70 years, authors, filmmakers, playwrights, songwriters and painters have responded to the queen as both symbol and human being, whether commenting on the heights of her position or attempting to tease out the inner life of a woman who spoke infrequently in public and avoided personal revelations.
The dual qualities, majesty and mystery, found her imagined in settings ranging from the sobriety of royal art to the rage of punk music to the varied characterisations of film and television.
“I think because she was a constant presence who didn’t say very much, it allowed people to project on her in different ways,” said Elizabeth Holmes, whose HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style was published in 2020.
“Also, you can very easily make people look like the Queen. You can take that as a starting point and run.”
On film, the queen has been fictionalised in everything from Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning portrayal in The Queen to the farcical Naked Gun movies and the grim Spencer, with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana and Stella Gonet as Elizabeth. But she has been dramatised most fully in the Emmy-winning Netflix series The Crown, which follows her life from the beginning of her reign to recent times.
When played by Claire Foy as a young and glamorous monarch, she is seen as finding her way in her new life, trying to maintain a happy relationship with her husband, Prince Philip while approaching her royal duties with the sobriety of someone years older.