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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy

Touching up the queen.
Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy
Self-portrait in Light
For any artist, to be commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen of England is pretty much the height of one's career. However, the job also carries with it a massive burden of responsibility. The National Portrait Gallery in London list 743 official images of Queen Elizabeth II, with 143 of them being paintings. I know, she's been on the throne for over fifty years, but when does the lady find time for anything besides posing? Good, bad, or ugly (and there have been all three), a painting of the queen is bound to be burdened or embellished with loads of publicity, as will the artist. One early portrait effort (painted by John Napper) was so bad it was, until recently, hidden away for some sixty years. Lucien Freud's head-only image (below, center), while a fair likeness, could hardly be considered anything but ugly in its rendering. Another, by Dan, Llywelyn Hall (below, left), was not only ugly, but inept--it wasn't even a good likeness. Fortunately, for the queen at least, most have been relatively attractive, with a few falling into the outstanding category (Jenna Phipps, below, right). Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy's 2002 portrait of Her Royal Highness falls in or near the group at the top.

Portraits of the queen--the good, the bad, the ugly (and the simply strange).
Portrait Study number one.

Chinwe was born in Nigeria in 1952, the same year Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II. In 1975, a refugee from the Biafran War, she moved to England where she received a B.A. in graphic design. It wasn't until 1988 when she was thirty-six, that she started painting professionally. Most of her work has been figurative with portraits, landscapes, and black social history making up the bulk of her efforts. In 2001, as the queen neared her Golden Jubilee celebrating fifty years on the throne, Chinwe Chukwogo-Roy was chosen from a group of five by the Commonwealth Secretariate (an intergovernmental agency and central institution of the Commonwealth of Nations) to paint their offficial portrait of the queen. Even before the first sitting with Her Majesty, Chinwe was famous--and nervous.

Portrait Study number two.

To her surprise and dismay, the press was more interested in the fact that Chinwe was African and female than they were in the portrait (after the first hundred or so, the British press has become rather jaded on the subject of royal portraits, unless they're particularly bad). The artist did her homework. She did three, preliminary, color studies in oils, (one a head and shoulders image) as well as the final full-length portrait. The one distinctive trait they all bear in common is her use of color. African painting in general has a tendency toward vivid colors and there's no missing a certain sub-continent flavor to the final portrait especially. If the painting has a fault, it might be said that the brightly rendered sunset (or sunrise) and the background, featuring landmarks from former Commonwealth colonies, competes with the image of the queen herself.

Portrait Study Number three.
The first black artist to be honored with a royal commission, Chinwe's portrait met with official Commonwealth approval marked by traditional British restraint: "We are delighted." The British press took lots of photos, but had little comment other than that regarding her race and gender. And the queen? Her Royal Highness was apparently "delighted" as well, bestowing upon Chinwe the coveted Membership in The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy died in 2012 at the age of sixty.

Diaspora III, Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy,
typical of her African roots.
HRH Elizabeth II, 2002, Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy


  1. An artist of exceptional talent although, in the case of this portrait, the oil study which was worked up and is now part of the Queen's collection, is of greater quality than this portrait which suffered somewhat from internal palace politics as to the choice of dress "a heavy velvet garment that absorbed light like a sponge".
    The enduring relationship between the Queen and the artist may go some way to explain how she captured more of the character of the Queen than many other artists.

  2. Sir William--

    Thanks for reading my post and for your interesting comment. I can't go beyond that, not knowing the circumstances regarding the queen's relationship with the artist. I do see what you mean about the blue velvet dress. By the way, you're the first "Sir" to ever write to me. I've been hoping to make a trip to London on the Queen Mary II next spring if I can talk my wife into it. We stayed for a night on the old Queen Mary in Long Beach last May. It was most fascinating and really served to highlight just how far ocean travel has progressed in the past 50-100 years. Again, thanks for your comments.