When I was 11 years old, my school did a field trip to London and I remember pressing my face against the bars of Buckingham Palace, wishing that one day I could see inside. Fast forward to eight years ago; I was in a seminar and asked to write down what I would consider the greatest symbol that "I had made it". I wrote: "To meet the Queen." In May 2006, as I walked through the great gates of Buckingham Palace, and set foot upon the gravel, these memories came rushing back and I finally understood what people meant when they wrote that art transcends all social boundaries. My art had brought me here. I felt such gratitude.
For, and in honor of my wonderful Uncle Norman Ball and his fellow soldiers, all veteran soldiers, I executed a painting of the Grenadier Guards' Brigadier General, so they could present it to him upon his forthcoming retirement. Much to my surprise, months later, as the Grenadier's artist, I was invited to the Trooping of the Color (the Queen's "invitation only" birthday parade), and to spend a weekend with the Grenadiers, attending their memorial services in Wellington Barracks, meeting several dignitaries, including Prince Philip. This weekend was pivotal, was indeed a turning point in my life, for many reasons.
The memorial service at the Royal Military Chapel, was a beautiful, and solemn affair attended by military officials, Lords, Ladies, and the handful of old veteran guardsman still alive from World War II, including my own Uncle Norman. I felt privileged and touched beyond I can explain, as I begun to more fully understand the idea of duty, and of being a part of something much more important, and greater than yourself.
When I was placed in line to meet our Queen, a wizened old man, draped in medals, fully uniformed and wearing a beret upon his 80+ year old head, was wheeled up and put behind me. I could not tolerate this, after the service and all I had learned at Wellington Barracks. To be here and standing in front of this man, just because I could paint, seemed unimaginable to me. I asked him if he had ever met The Queen, and he said "Oh no, love. But I do get to come every year to get a glimpse of her." Well .....I started to get his wheelchair and put him in my place. I was told I could not do this... and I started to cry. The Queen's Equerry came up, in all his pomp and regalia and asked what was the matter, and I explained I would prefer to stand behind this veteran and that I just couldn't have him behind me. He asked people to move aside and took the old man's details and decided to allow us both to stand in line. The old man was as erect as he could be in his wheelchair, and when it was his turn, I believe The Queen spent more time with him than with anyone else in the lineup. I was incredibly impressed that she was keen to know his battalion, and knew every sortie he has served in, and spoke to him with great dignity. He could not speak as his old hand held mine until we were all released. For myself.... when she looked at me and asked me about the painting I did for the Household Cavalry (this one is in Hyde Park Barracks of her drum horse Constantine) I thought she was so incredibly beautiful, even though she's just turned 80. Her skin was like porcelain, and her eyes as violet-blue as the zenith. Everyone kept saying "She spend a lot of time with you didn't she?" But it was only a minute.... a beautiful minute.
Since 2006, I have never put this in the newspaper; Never used it for publicity, because I felt it was a gift too meaningful to brandish about in the media, and I wanted to savor the experience as the deep and solemn honor it was. I was changed forever, because I finally understood duty and being a part of something bigger than yourself, personified by all the old soldiers and the Queen. It was, and always shall be, so much more than an event to me. I have decided to share the story with you now because, in the light of the upcoming Kentucky Derby notoriety, I am being asked about it, and thought it was time to share it, at last..... with my best wishes to you, and especially to the Royal Grenadier Guards and all the young and old people in the armed forces ... wherever you are.