The Queen’s former artist in residence recalls what it was like to paint the most visually represented person in history – and to find the human underneath
Jeremy Houghton – once described by the then-Prince Charles as the Queen’s “favourite young artist” – still cannot quite believe the access he was given to sketch Elizabeth II when she was “off duty”. He even, on occasion, would bump into her around Windsor Castle and have unscheduled one-on-one chats.
“Sometimes there was no warning whatsoever, which looking back is totally bizarre,” says Houghton, who was artist in residence at her most beloved home in 2014. “I would just be sitting minding my own business under a tree and then the Queen would walk round. If there was any warning, it was a corgi.”
Everyone from Lucian Freud and Bryan Adams to Cecil Beaton and Annie Leibovitz were invited to produce formal portraits of the woman the BBC described as “the most visually represented person in the whole of human history”. She was the subject of almost 1,000 images in the National Portrait Gallery alone. But these were meticulously stage-managed; few painters or photographers had the chance to observe and interact with the late sovereign in her natural habitat.
Over six months, Houghton was given free rein to document the goings-on at Windsor, with a bed to sleep in above the stables – the part of the Castle he describes as its “heartbeat” and which he made the focus of his work. “That’s the place that she loved most. As a result of that, it was immaculate and beautiful and shiny and polished.”
The 48-year-old from the Cotswolds says his mission became twofold: to find the “Elizabeth Windsor persona” behind the monarchical mask, and to tell her story “through the eyes of the horse”.
“The fact that I was painting her passion meant that she was always interested in what I was doing. Had she not been Queen, I think she would have spent her life dedicated to the breeding of horses.” Indeed, aged six, Princess Elizabeth told her riding instructor that when she grew up, she wanted to become a “country lady with lots of horses and dogs”.
He describes her as an “absolute encyclopedia” when it came to her steeds. “If I happened to be sketching one particular horse, I would get a first-hand report – where it came from, what it’s done, what its breeding was. So, yeah, incredible.”
As a schoolboy, Houghton had painted Windsor Castle for his art GCSE. Twenty-five years later, the drawbridge was let down for him to document its inner workings. He says it was instantly apparent when the Queen was in residence. “You could definitely feel her energy or presence – you knew she was there. Everyone was on their toes, and the place had a bit more fizz to it. And then when she left, the place sort of took a sigh of relief.”
He produced numerous watercolours of the Queen, admiring and patting her horses, and several of her riding as a child. His ambition is always to convey “a narrative rather than just a head and shoulders. I’m trying to find the story that isn’t told. I’m trying to get behind the closed doors and find the other half of people.”
Houghton uses a limited palette of blue and sepia tones to make his pictures look like old photographs. “I do that because I want them to have a feeling of timelessness and nostalgia. You can’t really pin a date on them. So my contemporary modern-day paintings of the King’s Troop could have been the King’s Troop 100 years ago. I like that sort of play on time.”
He first came into the royal orbit in 2009 when he was appointed a resident artist in St James’s Palace for the 500th anniversary of the oldest military regiment in the world, the Gentlemen at Arms – the monarch’s ceremonial bodyguards. In 2013, he was asked to do the same at Highgrove, Charles’s Gloucestershire estate, focusing on its working animals.
“His vision was my inspiration,” says the painter. “The story I wanted to tell was that he was ahead of his time in noticing that we need to be greener with everything we do. He was instrumental in encouraging others to adopt traditional farming methods.
“I remember he said to me once when we were out, ‘We must do as much to preserve our mountains as we do our cathedrals.’ And he’s absolutely right.”
His last commission at Her Majesty’s service was delivered just this year – a painting of Dunfermline, one of her most successful racehorses. Although the Queen was not well enough to attend the presentation herself in June, Houghton was still able to give her a laugh.
Rushing to get to Epsom Racecourse on time to hand over the Platinum Jubilee gift to Princess Anne, he forgot his neckwear and, after a rummage in the back of his car, resorted to wearing his daughter’s tiny Pony Club tie, which he hoped would just about stay tucked into his waistcoat.
It did not escape the eagle eyes of the Princess Royal, who was reduced to fits of giggles, and relayed the story, and the painting, to the Queen that night at Windsor – before it was hung on the wall at Sandringham.
As one of the privileged few to have observed both Elizabeth II and Charles III at close quarters – and to have his work in both of their private art collections – how do their personalities compare? “I wouldn’t focus on the differences,” he says. “I’d focus on the similarities – they were both incredibly kind and warm and generous with their time and interested in what I was doing.
“My experience of Charles is he’s a very intelligent, very kind, compassionate person and I think those are the qualities that he’ll bring to his reign. He’s the perfect person to help steer the monarchy into the 21st century.”
Reflecting on his precious time with Her Late Majesty, he says: “She’s got the best art collection in the world, but she even had time for me, which I think says quite a lot.” He adds: “My privilege was getting to know her as a person.”