‘Do you think you'll have to rebuild Rideau Hall?” That's the question the Queen asked Canadian Governor-General David Johnston on Wednesday morning just before she pulled the roughly 11-foot-high drapery covering off her latest portrait, a Canadian government commission commemorating her diamond jubilee by Toronto painter Phil Richards. Mr. Johnston, accompanied to the Buckingham Palace ceremony by the 61-year-old artist and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, assured the 5-foot-4 monarch a spot would be found. It's the third official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II commissioned by Canada since her reign's inception in 1952. The Globe's James Adams spoke to artist Phil Richards.
Had you met her Majesty before?
Yes. Today was my third meeting. The first was at Rideau Hall on July 1, 2010. She was touring at that time and a photo session had been set up that morning to take her Diamond Jubilee photograph and to give me raw material to start with. The last time was in London, at Buckingham Palace, in February 2011. I like to involve my subjects in what I'm doing; we kind of find our way together, and that's what I was doing then – showing charcoal sketches, talking about the concept. We got along well.
Were you anxious about receiving the commission? She is the most famous woman in the world and likely the most photographed and painted.
Not really. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But, in fact, she is the one person I've always wanted to paint. I did my first portrait 40 years ago and even back then I thought I'd love to paint her, to be part of that long tradition of royal portraiture. Of course, I never thought our paths would ever cross, not least with her being in England, me being in Canada.
What was her response to the unveiling?
Protocol officials just told me I can't tell anyone what she said or paraphrase her remarks. I hope she was pleased. I think she was. You rarely get to do a single-figure portrait on that scale (2.7 metres high by 1.8 metres) today.
What were you striving for in the portrait? A certain mood? Presence?
I usually say to my subjects that my main goal is to make a really good work of art that you happen to be in [and] that people will respond to. In this case, the prospect was both challenging and exciting because I wanted to work with the traditions of state portraiture, royal portraits, to hearken to that past, but still make it look like something from the 21st century without being iconoclastic. My wife estimates at least 100 hours went into the face alone, just trying to present someone who is dignified and regal, intelligent and committed to her job and also comfortable in that job. I also wished to convey a person anyone could relate to, which is why, if you look closely at a high-resolution image, there's a hint of a smile.
Where does the painting go from here?
It's going to be on view at Canada House [office of the Canadian High Commissioner to the U.K.] from June 8 to the 15th. For its ultimate home, there were two possible locations. One was the Senate foyer in Ottawa. That's where the earlier royal portraits are. And the other site was Rideau Hall, in the ballroom. That was the one chosen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.