Miriam Escofet with her portrait of the queen

Graduate Miriam Escofet, commissioned to paint Queen’s official portrait, talks about her time at UoB

“It was great fun, a great place to be. Brighton was one of very few places at the time which offered 3D Design and Craft as an option and there was a huge variety of approaches to work going on in my course” – award-winning artist looks back on her time at Brighton.

Escofet, who studied Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Plastics at the university’s School of Art in the late 1980s (a course which later became the modern day equivalent: 3D Design and Craft), recently created history with the first virtual unveiling of a portrait of the Queen, with Her Majesty viewing the painting via a video call.

Speaking to the university, Escofet said some of the skills she learnt at Brighton have stayed with her: “It was great fun, a great place to be. Brighton was one of very few places at the time which offered 3D Design and Craft as an option and there was a huge variety of approaches to work going on in my course.

“I chose to specialise in ceramics as my major and a year or two after I left Brighton, I set up a ceramics studio while I started painting – which gradually took over. But I incorporate the making side of things into my painting, because I’m always constructing little props that become the subject matter to my painting, which is a way of keeping it all going – I love constructing things.”

Escofet describes art as being “in the blood”, having moved to the UK from Barcelona in 1979 with her parents, who at the time, were both artists. It was the portrait of her mother which won her the BP Portrait Prize in 2018 – an honour which ultimately led to her appointment to work with the Queen, through her links to the National Portrait Gallery.

Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service, was looking to commission a portrait of the Queen for the reception area of the Foreign Office.

Escofet said: “I thought about it for about two seconds and said yes! These opportunities come along once in a lifetime. There was some trepidation, I must say – you’re treading in strange waters but I love a challenge. We were both in tune – we wanted to show a more intimate side to her and capture her humanity, the person.”

The first half-hour sitting with the Queen took place in July 2019 at Windsor Castle, with a second sitting taking place in February this year at Buckingham Palace, which was focused on facial expressions.

Overall, the painting process took seven months, starting in October, and Escofet has fond memories of her audience with the Queen: “I had complete creative freedom, which was great. They treat the sittings as very much a private encounter, which is lovely. I had this completely natural exchange with her – or as natural as it’s ever going to be anyway! The

only caveat is that you’re not really supposed to say what was said between you. There was a lot of preparation time, so I was allowed to view and prepare the room before.

“She struck me as a very grounded, real person”.

As the weeks ticked on before the unveiling, Escofet admits the pressure was on: “I probably spent longer going over parts of the painting because it was the Queen, and I was very conscious about how other people may view the work, more so than any other painting that I’ve done.

“There was a lot of deliberation – the problem is, you’re painting probably the best known face in the world. But everyone will have their own subjective view of what the Queen looks like and what kind of person she is. As the artist, you’re trying to represent the person behind the iconic face.

“Despite lockdown, there was still a deadline and I remember not sleeping for four nights before taking it to be photographed. There was a bit of anxiety – you have to get it right. This is your one chance.”

The portrait was finally unveiled over video call at the end of July – a finely tuned process which involved a lot of choregraphing and three visits to the room at the Foreign Office to check on correct lighting and other matters: “There were two cameramen in the room and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a celebrity! The level of care that went into it was really quite impressive.

“There was obviously a lot of nervousness, but as soon as the Queen came on the call, she immediately looked very relaxed and very happy to be doing this.

“I was explaining to her about the hidden symbolism of the tea cup and she made a funny remark saying ‘but there’s no tea in the cup’ and I said ‘yes, obviously I sacrificed the tea for the symbolism!’ and made a couple of other comments too – so that was lovely.”

Find out more about Miriam’s work on her website and about the university’s 3D Design and Craft course.

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