Though both Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip have left us, we still have stunning paintings to remember them by. Wearing distinguished clothing and with a smile flickering at the corners of his mouth, Prince Philip looks suitably splendid in his final portrait. The backdrop’s something to behold, too — a magnificent corridor of Windsor Castle, adorned with regal portraits and stretching as far as the eye can see. But there are also some fascinating hidden details contained in the image, as the artist has revealed.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the colossal canvas — measuring a whopping 63 x 90 inches — is a photograph, so exquisite is its detail. It perfectly captures the ornate ceiling of Windsor’s Grand Corridor, where the Queen and Philip lived until his sad passing in April 2021. And recently, talented artist Ralph Heimans has shed light on the symbolism concealed within his painting.
The majestic artwork — or “state portrait” as royal paintings are officially known — is a fitting tribute to the beloved duke and consort to the Queen. Known in life for his wry humor and sense of fun, Philip has an almost visible twinkle in his eye in Heimans’ portrait. Despite his formal attire, though, he looks almost casual, too, in a sideways stance with his hands loosely clasped behind his back.
As the artist’s revealed, though, the composition of the painting was cleverly crafted to have special meaning for the duke and his family. In fact, it’s a signature style of London-based artist Heimans, who’s built a relationship with the royals over the years. In that time, he’s created impressive works of the Queen and Prince Charles, too. And they all contain hidden meanings.
The Coronation Theatre: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, created for the monarch’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, is another jaw-dropping example of Heimans’ artistry. In it, the monarch is pictured in the exact spot where she’d ascended to the throne six decades earlier. It’s also where all English kings and queens over the past nine centuries have been crowned. Wow!
Recapturing the Coronation
Rather like her husband’s unusual pose in his portrait, Elizabeth stands sideways in the painting and at the center of the spectacular pavement. The stunning swirls that form the latter’s design led to Shakespeare dubbing it “the floor of heaven.” The Queen’s resplendent in her ruby-red coronation robe and diamond accessories, once worn by another great female monarch — Victoria.
Painting Prince Charles
Of course, a lineup of modern state paintings wouldn’t be complete without Charles. And Heimans was indeed commissioned with the task in 2018, to mark the Prince of Wales turning 70. It’s another fine piece and, much like his father’s portrait, Charles’ depicts him in a significant setting. He’s pictured in Dumfries House, one of the Prince’s Trust Charity’s estates.
More hidden meaning
The Duke of Cornwall’s known for his commitment to environmental issues and protecting Britain’s culture. Dumfries House is seen as a symbol of this, being an architectural heritage site that Charles strove to restore and involve the local community in. In the portrait, the prince is also standing next to a window through which an oak tree can be seen — symbolizing his love of nature.
Glimpse into the past
State portraits have of course been crucial in giving us a glimpse into what some of history’s most notorious monarchs looked like. One of the earliest examples of these is a copy — the original perished in a fire — of the Whitehall Mural. This fascinating artwork by Hans Holbein the Younger — great name! — portrays the ruthless King Henry VIII.
Henry and wife number three
The portrait also features Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour. The king’s consort followed the unfortunate Anne Boleyn and was the only one of Henry’s six wives to be honored with a state funeral after she tragically died following childbirth.
“Mad” King George III
Historically, state paintings were usually created to celebrate the accession of a new king or queen. Symbols of power and leadership have traditionally featured, too. An 18th-century depiction of “mad” King George III, for example, shows him in his coronation clothes. Preceding George’s sad descent into madness, his crown and a mighty column in the background represent the regal strength and power that he then had.
Victorious Charles II
British history buffs will know that when the Oliver Cromwell-created republic collapsed in 1660, the monarchy was reinstated and Charles II claimed the throne once more. After years of political turmoil, the monarch’s return was a welcome one. His state portrait was painted some years after his 1661 coronation, and it shows him in his royal regalia on the throne, looking the picture of self-assurance.
Imposing Elizabeth I
Now, we’re all familiar with what Elizabeth I supposedly looked like. That alabaster-painted face, red bouffant hair framed by a huge ruff atop an elaborate gown. The 16th-century British monarch cut an imposing figure, that’s for sure. And it’s thanks in part to portraits and prints such as this one — produced in 1603, not long before the queen died — by Crispijn de Passe, that we’ve learned to be familiar with her appearance.
HM Queen Elizabeth II
To mark the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, Scottish artist Sir Herbert James Gunn was asked to create a state portrait. The artwork was completed in 1954 and shows her looking particularly regal in Buckingham Palace’s Throne Room.
Artwork fit for a queen
In Gunn’s painting, the British monarch sports her purple Robe of Estate and white satin coronation dress. The former, which is draped over a monogrammed throne, bears embroidery so complex that it apparently took well over 3,000 hours to complete. Wowzers! As with artworks of the monarchs before her, Elizabeth’s portrait features the royal scepter and crown in the background to symbolize her state power.
Not all royal portraits have been universally admired, though. In fact, some of them have been positively hated by critics and the royals themselves. Others have simply divided opinion. The traditional state portraits, as we’ve seen, often feature monarchs and their families in rather stiff, formal poses. But that hasn’t always been the case.
Take, for example, the 2000 work Royal Family by John Wonnacott. Commissioned to commemorate the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday, Wonnacott’s painting captures the royal matriarch surrounded by her family in natural, informal poses. Prince Harry playfully leans on her chair, while even the Queen’s Corgis are cavorting at her feet!
Elizabeth apparently wasn't a fan of a 1996 painting from Anthony Williams. Depicting an informally dressed Queen sitting in a chair by a window, it isn’t too kind to the monarch. Williams has painted every line and wrinkle on her face and hands. And the latter present Elizabeth as having “fat sausage fingers,” according to some observers. Yikes.
There was less scoffing at a 1999 portrait of the monarch by Andrew Festing. The work, entitled Portrait of Elisabeth II for Chelsea Hospital, shows the Queen in formal attire — complete with tiara and regal clothes — gazing into the distance while two Chelsea Pensioners stand to attention in the background. The composition’s a little awkward, which is perhaps why it divided opinion.
Now, it’s generally recognized that any work by the artist Lucian Freud is going to be a little, ahem, unconventional. So it shouldn’t be any great surprise that his portrayal of the Queen in 2000 was less than flattering. Freud’s characteristically heavy lines prompted The Times critic Richard Morrison to suggest that it looked like the monarch had a “six-o’clock shadow.” Oh dear.
Prince Philip’s past
Heimans’ style perhaps falls somewhere between formal and contemporary. His 2017 portrait of Prince Philip definitely shirks the stiffness of state portraits past. And there are no crowns or scepters representing his royal status. But there are certainly plenty of other significant details that reflect the duke’s life.
Now, what you might not know about the British monarch’s late husband is that he was born Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. That’s right: the oh-so-British-sounding Duke of Edinburgh was of Greek and Danish descent. He was born in June 1921 in Corfu, Greece. Philip was the fifth child of Princess Alice of Battenberg and Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark. And Heimans had to reference this in his painting.
To make matters even more complicated, Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, was actually the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The former was born at Windsor Castle near London, and she was raised and educated in England. Then, in 1902 she met Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark at King Edward VII’s coronation. The pair fell in love and wed a year later.
And so it was that the royal couple returned to Prince Andrew’s native Greece, where Philip and his four older sisters were born. But when Philip was just a year old, he and his family were exiled to France as a result of the Greco-Turkish conflict. Over the following years, the future Duke of Edinburgh flitted between schools in France, Germany, and Britain.
Joining the Navy
He completed his school education at Gordonstoun in Scotland, before embarking on a career in the Royal Navy. Working his way up the ranks, he was made a first lieutenant and eventually a naval commander. And it was when a 13-year-old Queen Elizabeth visited the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth with her father that she first encountered her future consort.
Reportedly, Elizabeth was smitten with the handsome Philip during that first meeting, and the pair started writing to each other. But it wasn’t until 1939, when the young Queen was 20 years old, that Philip of Mountbatten — a title derived from his mother’s family name — plucked up the courage to ask King George VI for permission to wed Elizabeth. And the rest, of course, is history.
Honoring the duke
Now that we know the backstory of the duke, the hidden meanings of the details in Heimans’ portrait begin to emerge. It’s worth noting here that the painting was commissioned to honor Philip stepping down from his public duties in 2017. Aged 96 at the time it was created, the Queen’s consort’s last portrait pays homage to his life and family.
On closer inspection, we can see that the Duke of Edinburgh is wearing a pale blue sash with his navy blue evening suit. It’s Denmark’s greatest honor, known as the Order of the Elephant sash, in recognition of his Danish royal ancestry. While this marks Philip’s paternal bloodline, his mother’s is also paid tribute to.
Descendent of Queen Victoria
Visible to the right of the Duke in the portrait is a painting of Queen Victoria with members of her family. They include Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, and Alice’s mom, Princess Victoria. Both, coincidentally, were born at Windsor Castle in the Tapestry Room, which is located at one end of the Grand Corridor.
As Philip’s own life sadly was coming to an end at Windsor, there’s a cyclical resonance to the portrait’s setting. Heimans pointed this out during an interview with Dermot Murnaghan on the Sky News Daily podcast, noting that the Duke of Edinburgh’s entire life was echoed in Windsor Castle’s Grand Corridor.
The duke’s humor
Heimans went on to speak of the experience of working with the duke, recalling that “sitting was, in fact, a lot of fun.” The artist continued, “As you can imagine, he’s full of humor, but underlying that there’s a sense of seriousness about the portrait.” The prince consort was a keen painter himself, Heimans revealed.
So did Philip enjoy sitting for his final portrait? “I think he was very engaged throughout the process,” Heimans said. “[He] enjoyed it very much and was very chatty afterwards, and so it was a really enjoyable experience as well as a very extraordinary privilege.”
When the duke stepped down from public duties in 2017, he’d undertaken more than 22,000 solo appearances. Wow. Which goes to show how busy the royals actually are. Philip was the longest-serving British consort and, in the same year that he retired from formal duties, he marked his platinum wedding anniversary with the Queen.
At the considerably advanced age of 96, the duke — not surprisingly — began to experience health problems. In April 2018 he went into hospital to undergo hip-replacement procedures. But less than two months afterwards, the determined consort joined the Queen at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. And he even walked without support.
Almost a year later, though, a 97-year-old Philip narrowly escaped serious injury when his vehicle crashed into another car near a royal estate in Norfolk, England. He admitted responsibility and apologized for the incident, giving up his driver’s license shortly afterwards as a result. It was another indication of the duke’s deteriorating faculties.
Towards the end of 2019, Philip was hospitalized once again due to what palace spokespeople referred to as a “pre-existing condition.” He was discharged just in time for Christmas but was forced to spend most of the following year shielding with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.
The prince passes away
After battling an infection in early 2021, Philip was back in hospital for what were revealed to be cardiac issues. He had an operation, which went well, so the duke came home in March to convalesce. Sadly, he passed away on 9 April at Windsor, just a couple of months shy of his 100th birthday. The world then tuned in to watch his televised state funeral.
The end of state portraits?
We have to wonder, though: will portraits such as Heimans’ become a thing of the past? Perhaps it’ll be a royal trend that dies with the senior members of today’s royal family. After all, it’s well known that the future queen consort, Kate Middleton, loves photography. And the Queen seemed to like the medium, too. In video speeches, she was often seen surrounded by photographs of her family. One that was placed behind the monarch in a recent appearance was particularly poignant.
The Queen’s video had been prerecorded for the COP26 climate change conference in the United Kingdom. The original plan had been for the monarch to be at the event in person, as many other members of the royal family ended up doing. But unfortunately a medical issue got in the way.
A week before the summit was due to take place, Buckingham Palace made an announcement that the Queen had been “following advice to rest” and that as a result of a hospital stay she was remaining at home as a “sensible precaution.” The Palace didn’t provide any further information about what she’d been suffering from, though.
The Queen’s Speech
The Palace also made it clear that the Queen was regretful about not being able to attend and hoped that the conference would go well. She was clearly passionate about the cause of environmental protection because she not only took time to record the video, but she also made a much more personal speech than usual.
Caught on tape
And even beforehand, the Queen had been overheard talking about climate change and her annoyance at other world leaders for not acting on the problem. She would probably have never said this if she’d known she was being recorded, but she admitted, “It’s really irritating when they talk, but they don’t do.”
The Queen mentioned this in the COP26 speech, too, but in a much more diplomatic way. She said, “For more than 70 years, I have been lucky to meet and to know many of the world’s great leaders. And I have perhaps come to understand a little about what made them special. It has sometimes been observed that what leaders do for their people today is government and politics. But what they do for the people of tomorrow — that is statesmanship.”
And the monarch continued, telling to the attendees, “It is the hope of many that the legacy of this summit — written in history books yet to be printed — will describe you as the leaders who did not pass up the opportunity and that you answered the call of those future generations.”
She ended the speech with the touching words, “Of course, the benefits of such actions will not be there to enjoy for all of us here today: none of us will live forever. But we are doing this not for ourselves but for our children and our children’s children, and those who will follow in their footsteps.”