18 September 2022

Portrait fit for a Queen

| Marg Wade
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'Wattle portrait' of Queen Elizabeth II

‘Wattle portrait’. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, painted by William Dargie in 1954.

Queen Elizabeth II’s image has been reproduced on millions – if not billions – of items around the Commonwealth, most commonly on stamps and banknotes, and countless portraits. But one image is particularly loved – including by the subject herself.

Melbourne industrialist James Beveridge commissioned renowned portrait artist William Dargie to paint a portrait of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 to commemorate her first visit to Australia. Prime Minister Robert Menzies gained permission for the former war artist and multiple Archibald Prize winner to have five sittings with Queen Elizabeth to produce the fine work.

Dargie and Her Majesty built a rapport, chatting easily during those two-hour sittings at Buckingham Palace.

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Dargie painted the young Queen wearing what became known as the ‘wattle dress’, designed by Norman Hartnell, who created both her wedding and coronation gowns. Dargie had seen the Queen wear the elegant mimosa gold tulle gown with its embroidered gold wattle motifs, complete with shoulder wattle sprig, at the first and last official functions in Sydney and Perth.

Complementing the elegant gown, the Queen wore a diamond tiara, a gift from her grandmother, Queen Mary, and a drop diamond necklace, a wedding gift from Nizam of Hyderabad.

Dargie, a man whose early ambition was to become a Davis Cup tennis player, had turned his hand to painting on impulse one day when a tennis match had been rained out. Finding himself years later painting the Queen’s portrait in the London home of hosts, Sir Neil and Lady Hamilton Fairley, must have been a career highlight for him.

Once completed, the work was to be shipped back to Australia. So worried was Dargie that the painting may not arrive in one piece or that it would get lost that he decided to create a duplicate. But, he did not wish to improve on the work in any way, which can quickly happen when creating a duplicate — so he created a copy by ingenious means. He painted it upside down. That way, he focussed on colour and technique rather than the subject. He noted this method in a handwritten note on the back of the completed duplicate.

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Following the death of her husband, who had commissioned the original painting, Mrs Beveridge gifted Dargie’s ‘Wattle portrait’ to the Australian Commonwealth on the Queen’s 29th birthday, 21 April 1955. It became part of the Historic Memorials Collection and is on permanent display at Parliament House.

The portrait is popular for photos with visitors and selfie lovers. The image of Her Majesty quickly became ubiquitous, with prints found across the country in government offices, schools, libraries, community centres and RSL clubs, and even on naturalisation certificates for new citizens.

William Dargie presented the completed duplicate to Lady Hamilton Fairley, the London host of his stay where he created his works. It remained in the family until 2009 when it was bought at auction by the National Museum of Australia. This work is on display at the museum.

But the story continues.

The Queen was so taken with the Wattle portrait that she requested a copy for her own collection — so a second duplicate was created. The portrait was indeed fit for a Queen.

Sir William Dargie was knighted for his services to art in 1970. He passed away in 2003.

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I think Pietro Annigoni’s 1955 portrait of the queen was the best portrait of her -but not his later portrait -that was horrible!

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