It is one of the more flattering portraits of the Queen, showing a soupcon of a smile and twinkling eyes framed by a glorious sun kissed sky. Painted by Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy in 2002 to mark Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee, it captures a side of the monarch seldom revealed in public.
“I had already met her formally but she was very different this time, much more open,” recalls Chinwe of the first sitting. “She went out of her way to make me feel comfortable and kept on cracking jokes. I laughed so much that day. At the same time she was very gracious. I hope that the painting reflects these qualities.”
The portrait – the first by a black painter– marks a high point for the Nigerian-born artist, whose more recent work is currently on show at Camden Town’s The Forge. When it was commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat, Chinwe was by then an established portrait artist. Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi and Commonwealth Secretary General Chief Emeka Anyaoku had been among her previous sitters.
“Nevertheless, I was surprised that my portfolio was chosen out of the other submissions and felt quite nervous walking down the very long corridors of Buckingham Palace, where the sitting took place.”
Chinwe describes herself as a diverse artist, having graduated in graphic design at the Hornsey College of Art, but counts portraiture as her favourite medium. “I have always liked looking at people and trying to capture what I see,” she explains.
She fell into portrait painting almost by accident. “I was working as a freelance graphic artist but got married and had two children – meeting deadlines became very difficult. I was always drawing my sons and other people asked me to do their children. I soon saw it was a way of earning money.”
After taking evening classes in the subject she decided to launch herself professionally in 1988 and since then has never looked back. The work on display at The Forge shows another side to her – bold and colourful paintings depicting the flora of both Nigeria and Suffolk, where she lives. “I love two flowers in particular, the hibiscus and the poppy, beautiful blooms that die very quickly. For me they reflect the beauty and transience of life.”
Her back catalogue is also full of images of Africa, capturing the “vibrancy and brightness” of its culture and people. It includes historical paintings such as the Africa Past, Present and Future series. These are to be displayed at the gallery later this month.
As a child growing up in eastern Nigeria, she remembers always being captivated by
art despite the fact it was never taught at school. “We did not have galleries or museums, but art was around us all the time, on walls, shops signs, in masquerades,” she remembers.
“I was always drawing or making things out of broken bits of wood and on my way home from school I used to paint signs for the small businesses, like barbers who wanted the different styles they did to be on show.”
Although art was not considered a particularly worthwhile profession for a newly independent nation, her decision to study it won her parents’ blessings and she travelled to London in 1975, enrolling in an art foundation course in the humble surrounds of East Ham College of Technology.
“I had had no formal training at all and my portfolio was just a random collection of what I had done over the years. This course was a very good introduction to the different aspects of art.”
Chinwe’s work has been noted for the optimistic, celebratory tone evident in her portrait of the Queen, a reflection of her own attitude to life. “Concentrating on the positive elevates – there are so many positives to see if we really look,” she says.
The exhibition runs until August in the upstairs Caponata room, The Forge, Delancey St, Camden Town. 10am-10pm. Free entry.
Published: 22 July 2010
Artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy