No British monarch in the history of the United Kingdom is said to have had as many portraits done as the present Queen Elizabeth II. From classical, ceremonial portraits to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art compositions – the range of styles and interpretations evident in the portraits of the Queen is staggeringly diverse. And in 2012, the British public will be given an opportunity to see a quite unusual, enamel portrait of Elizabeth II.
The enamel miniature portraits of Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother, Princess Anne, and members of the royal families of the Netherlands and Norway will be on display at a Royal Portraits exhibition in London in March 2012. London’s VZ Gallery is putting on this exhibition to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne, and the 20th anniversary of this collection of enamels and life drawings.
Recalling events some 20 years before, Alexei Maximov, the Russian enamellist who created these artworks remarked: “The papers described it at the time as a unique historic event – the first time a reigning British monarch had agreed to sit for Russian artists. Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Elizabeth had been painted by the émigré Russian artist Saveli Sorin (one of Somov’s circle of artist friends) in 1923 and 1949 respectively, but they weren’t reigning monarchs at the time.”
And it all began – as is the way of the Russian intelligentsia – with a kitchen table conversation. After a number of solo exhibitions of historic enamels artists Alexei Maximov and Leonid Efros were discussing future projects, and it was then that a strategic plan took shape to create a series of portraits of Europe’s present monarchs.
The director of the Kremlin museums Irina Rodimtseva not only reacted favourably to the artists’ ideas and commissioned them to make a series of English portraits, she also sent a letter to the director of Queen Elizabeth II’s collection, Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue. However, things did not go that smoothly in London. It appeared that the Queen would only be available for a sitting in five years’ time, at the earliest. And it was only thanks to the efforts of Kenneth Scott that they managed to arrange a meeting just a few weeks later.
So in March 1992, Maximov and Efros found themselves in the Yellow Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace. Alexei admits he remembers little of the sitting that was two hours long (instead of the planned 40 minutes) as he was focused on his work. The conversation was mainly conducted by Lukyantsev, the Russian Embassy official accompanying him. The Queen then invited the artists to do portraits of the Queen Mother and Princess Anne.
Maximov had a particularly memorable session with the ninety-two-year-old Queen Mother who personally signed the drawing the artists had made of her. At the end of the session the Queen Mother showed him her favourite portrait by Sorin where she was depicted as a twenty-three-year-old duchess. And then she announced, “I suggest we drink vodka with the Russian artists”.
When Maximov’s works were later shown to the Queen, she gave them her approval and consented to them being freely exhibited and published. The drawings that had been made during the sittings at Buckingham Palace formed the basis of the collection of enamels shown at the artist’s second solo exhibition at the Kremlin Armoury in 1994. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the Queen’s visit to Russia.