LONDON — When Chris Levine, a Canadian artist, was commissioned to create a holographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, who died in Scotland on Thursday, he took an unusual approach to making her relax.
Levine burned incense in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace where filming was taking place and set up a light sculpture to gently vibrate calming colors in the space. Later, he encouraged the queen to close her eyes between shots and focus on her breathing as if she were in a meditation class.
“Looking back, it was pretty surreal,” Levine said in a February interview. “I was trying to go beyond the queen’s personality, to the essence of her being,” he recalls of his encounters with the monarch. “That’s where the real beauty is.”
Levine’s methods may be unorthodox, but they have produced several famous images of the queen, in particular “Lightness of Being”, which depicts her with her eyes closed, as if caught in a moment of spiritual reflection.
According to Levine, when Mario Testino, the fashion photographer, saw “Lightness of Being”, he said, “People need to see this. It’s the most beautiful image. Levine said he expected that the image was widely shared on social media following the Queen’s death.
Queen Elizabeth sat for hundreds of official portraits like Levine’s during her seven decades on the British throne. But how was it for the artists to meet her and try to create a distinct image? We spoke to three artists behind key portraits of the Queen to find out.
Here are edited excerpts from those conversations.
“Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth II”, 2011
Thomas Struth, photographer
I did a lot more preparation than I normally would for a family portrait.
I looked at a ton of photographs that exist of her – hundreds – and thought, “People don’t look at her as a person, as a woman.” I wanted to show the Queen and Prince Philip as an elderly couple who are very close and used to each other.
One of my requests was that I should choose the queen’s dress, as I didn’t want her to appear in a bright yellow dress that would prevent me from getting a good photo. When I had looked at other portraits, many wore her something shiny, and it just made her chest the dominant signal and her face looked small.
That day, I had the impression that they were surprised that everything was so well prepared. The queen’s dresser said, “You can touch the queen if necessary”, and after two or three exposures, I realized that a pillow behind her back was misaligned, so I walked over to her, I moved her forward and changed her position. She found this somewhat surprising.
I exhibited 17 plates and then I knew I was done. I just felt like I had the picture. I had 15 more minutes left, but I gave them that as a gift – unscheduled time.
I learned later that when they saw the painting in a museum, they stood in front of it for a long time. It’s quite large – eight feet wide and maybe six feet high – and it’s very, very sharp. You can see all his veins. Prince Philip said: “How did he do that?”
“The Queen”, 1998
Justin Mortimer, painter
I was commissioned shortly after Diana’s death.
I was 27 and I think they chose me because they wanted to modernize the public view of the monarchy, because they were castigated as these introverted, irrelevant people at the time.
It was a bit overwhelming during the first session. When she walked in, I immediately addressed her the wrong way!
I started by taking some photos. She had a very, very straight gaze, and she never blinked, even as I got closer and closer with my Polaroid camera. When I pulled away from her, I realized I’d shot all those Polaroids right in her lap, which was embarrassing, but she said, “Don’t worry, honey.” Lord Snowden was shooting at me all the time.
I just remember thinking, “I’m in the presence of this human being who has met all the iconic characters of the 20th century. Just down the hall, she would have met Jackie and JFK, and Churchill and Idi Amin. Everyone from heroes to criminals.
In my studio the only way I could approach it was to paint it in the context of my other works at the time, and I had these figures with disjointed limbs and slightly dismembered heads, so I ended up by removing his neck. It was a bit cheeky. I knew people would come up with ideas, like “Cut his head off!” to her.
I didn’t go there as a rabid Republican. I just wanted to suggest this vein of unease about the royal family at the time.
After it came out, newspapers all over the world called me and interviewed me, and people seemed really offended by what I had done. But the fact that it is still remembered shows that the work has an almost iconic status.
I don’t know what the queen thought of it. But curiously, I was asked to do another portrait for the royal collection of Lord Chamberlain, who was this very tall old gentleman of the royal household. I wonder if that gives you any idea of the queen’s sense of humor, leading me to “do the business” on this man.
I was going to do a holographic portrait of her and originally thought I would do a pulsed laser hologram, which would have involved exposing Her Majesty to laser light. But I was nervous for health and safety reasons, that someone was going to say, “You’re kidding, aren’t you? Want to fire lasers at the queen?
So we came up with a different approach, where a camera moves along a track taking a series of 200 still images from left to right, then creating a hologram from each frame.
I had an idea in mind from the start: to go beyond all the noise and reduce it to some kind of essence. I wanted to make it really iconic, something that would resonate.
At the time, I was really getting into meditation and was almost evangelical about it. So when the camera finished its run and reset, I asked Her Majesty to breathe. I had another camera in the middle of the track, and I took the image that became “Lightness of Being” while she was resting.
I called the first portrait I did “Equanimity,” and I think she developed this mechanism of being equanimous and giving nothing away, to almost protect herself.
I showed her the work in progress at Windsor Castle – just me, her and her corgis – and asked her what she thought of the title and she said, cryptically, ‘Well, things aren’t always the way they seem.”
We talked about meditation, yes. She said her meditation was gardening at Balmoral.
Whatever indifference I may have had for the queen until the commission, I felt genuine affection for her at the end.
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