Menzies Art Brands



To date, Queen Elizabeth II has been the only reigning monarch to have visited Australias shores. It was a momentous occasion that stopped the nation and created inconceivable fanfare that lasted the entirety of her fifty-eight-day trip. As a young boy, Garry Shead was one of the hundreds of thousands of school children who welcomed Her Royal Highness and Prince Philip at the Sydney showgrounds on 5 February 1954. Awestruck by the encounter Shead recalls I remember seeing her and feeling the eye contact as she passed there was something unearthly and untouchable in her beauty she passed like an incarnate spirit.1 The visit became a conscious memory for the generation who witnessed it more than four decades later. Shead recreates this fleeting moment, immortalising its feeling with his breakthrough series entitled The Royal Suite.

The Royal Suite exemplified by Visitation (Small) 1996 does not employ a pre-existing narrative, nor does it accurately depict specific events and episodes from the royal visit. Rather, each work, theatrical and startling, offers a manuscript through which one observes echoes of the royal progress, the Republic debate, and personal desires. Sasha Grishin notes:

Many elements in this royal iconography appear enigmatic, even slightly incongruous, despite the pictorial clarity with which the artist has defined the imagery. While the participants appear at once recognisable through their various attributes and insignia, a single coherent reading is not possible. Rather, there are several competing narratives, both public and private, brought lovingly together under the glare of the all-encompassing Australian sun.2

These works have become iconic images and somewhat document the mood of Australians at the time of their creation. The 1999 Republic Referendum asked Australians to vote on laws which would alter the constitution and establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic. The Queen and Governor General would be replaced by a President and ties to our colonial roots would be severed. The Australian public was becoming somewhat disillusioned with a monarch who reigned from over twenty-thousand kilometres away. One may suggest that Shead was not enamoured by the idea of a republic and produced the works to pay homage and reacquaint Australians with a concept that many considered a defining moment of their lives. The works can also be seen as an allegory, an expression of nave belief perceived in memory through the eyes of a young boy, who encountered the queen at just twelve years of age. Possibly on the simplest level, the series explores a 'quest for beauty and a lost innocence, a quest for a new holy grail.'3   

The present work renders the artist's boyhood fantasies a tangible reality. Her Royal Highness soars like a guardian angel over her transfixed subjects who congregate like worshipping disciples around the table below. Bread and wine are present on the table, further reinforcing her perceived divinity. A warm yellow light radiates from her as she luminesces in an almost sheer gown; her crown acts as a halo strengthening her ethereal splendour. Like the fleeting encounter at the showgrounds in 1954, Shead depicts his sovereign as an astonishing presence who may dematerialise at any instant.

The central mood in the present work is one of joyful optimism; it is the Queens first visit to Australia as the reigning monarch. As with the finest of Sheads Royal Suite paintings, Visitation (Small) 1996 is adorned with lyrical charm and gentle opulence. It is both a memory painting and direct commentary on Australias mindset at the time of its creation. Yet, above all, it is a work that commemorates a precious childhood memory.

1. Garry Shead, quoted in Grishin, S., Garry Shead: Encounters with Royalty, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, p.12
2. Grishin, S., op. cit., pp.6-9
3. Ibid, p.27

Clementine Retallack

We use our own and third party cookies to enhance your experience of our site, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing. By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies. Please refer to our privacy and cookie policy.