Rolf's royal painting to visit castle

ANGI KENNEDY Rolf Harris’ portrait of the Queen comes to Norwich next year. ANGI KENNEDY looks at the work and why controversy always surrounds royal portraits.


The Queen described it as "friendly"; not exactly a ringing endorsement for a portrait that took one of Britain's best-loved artists two months to complete.

Yet, in the field of Royal portraits "friendly" is praise indeed. The Queen never usually comments on her portraits; that privilege is left to the art critics and the masses who are always quick to deliver their verdict on the latest attempt to capture on canvas the essence of the monarch.

And Rolf Harris' painting, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II - An 80th Birthday Portrait, was no different from the many that went before him. Some loved it - others hated it.

Rolf himself declared it "impressionist" and said that although he made no claims for it being "the greatest painting in the world", it was the best he could do. Other descriptions were less complimentary. One newspaper called it "blurred" and said Rolf had given the Queen "unflattering heavy features".

Norfolk people will have the opportunity to make up their own minds about the Australian artist and entertainer's efforts, when the portrait comes to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery fromSaturday March 10 to Sunday April 22.

Most Read

It will be the star exhibit of the current Painted Faces: Portraits from the Collections exhibition, which has been showing since July. And, said curator of art Nick Thornton, it will be a major coup for the castle. "It fits in perfectly with the theme of the show, which is very much about the stories of the people behind the paintings," he said.

"I think it is a really important picture. A lot of people enter into their experience of the visual arts through Rolf Harris and his arts programmes, and to be able to bring that to a local audience is great for the castle."

It is, of course, a picture that will be familiar to many people. It featured in a documentary shown on TV on New Year's Day 2006 and was on display in the Queen's gallery at Buckingham Palace during the summer.

The museum is borrowing the painting - measuring 40 by 20 inches - from Rolf Harris via the Portland Gallery in London, through connections with the East Anglia Art Fund.

But despite it being so well known, Mr Thornton believes people will want to visit the Norwich Castle to see the picture for themselves.

"I know there will be many people who will be very keen to visit this painting," he said. "Famous paintings, like the Mona Lisa for example, become part of the wider culture.

"Like this portrait, we have seen them reproduced many times in books and on television. Yet even so, there remains this need to see them for ourselves. When you stand in front of a famous painting in an art gallery, it can often appear so different from what you had thought. There is no substitute for seeing it for yourself."

Rolf Harris' painting is one of about 140 official portraits of the Queen which have been commissioned through the years. The first was in 1933, when she was just seven years old, and was painted by Hungarian artist Philip Alexius de Lászlo.

What is often described as the definitive portrait of the Queen was painted by Sir James Gunn in the mid-1950s, yet it is the romantic image of her standing in a dark cape, painted by Pietro Annigoni in the same period, which is probably better known.

In recent years, portraits of the Queen have become more stylised. Remember the controversial painting by Lucien Freud which created a storm of protest from those who saw it as disrespectful to the Queen or simply a bad picture.

Mr Thornton said: "I think it is because there is the sense of the Queen being a national figure and that her image is so well known.

"When people like Holbein were painting Henry VIII, these were officially sanctioned portraits, and the monarch could control how he was seen.

"But since the introduction of photography, things are far different. We can see what the Royals look like from their photographs, so what we want to see from a painted portrait is the artist's style and opinion rather than a photographic representation. Artists want to take their own ideas into a commission and so many people can have an opinion that it has the potential to cause controversy."

The Painted Faces: Portraits from the Collections exhibition continues at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until June 3 2007. The castle is open Monday to Friday 10am until 4.30pm, Saturday 10-5pm and Sunday 1-5pm (closed January 1).

t Rolf's painting will be visiting from March 10 to April 22.


Born in Perth, Australia on March 30 1930, to Welsh-born parents.

He moved to England in 1952 to study art and develop his own distinctive impressionist style.

He returned to Australia and became a star of children's television in 1960, but came back to Britain two years later to stay.

After making his name in Playbox on British TV, he graduated to his own programme - named after him - and became a huge hit with audiences for his painting, singing and his all-round enthusiastic character.

He also hit the charts with a string of distinctive singles including Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport; Sun Arise and Two Little Boys.

Where other stars of the Sixties may have faded into the background, he achieved new celebrity status as a cult favourite on the festival and Student Union circuit.

This coincided with a new role as presenters of various animal shows, such as the BBC's Animal Hospital.

In a BBC special, The Big Event, he worked with the public to recreate a huge version of The Haywain by Constable in Trafalgar Square, London.

His TV series looking at the lives and works of famous painters was a major success. And so he has once again become known for his first love, art.

This year he was made a CBE in the Queen's birthday honours list for his services to entertainment and the arts. He was appointed an MBE in 1968 and an OBE in 1977.

Can you tell who it is yet? He is, of course, Rolf Harris!

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter