June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (2024)

June Mendoza, who has died aged 99, was an artist who came to specialise in oil portraits of the great and the good; her subjects included the then Prince Charles, Judi Dench, Tom Stoppard, Queen Elizabeth II – five times – and 440 inhabitants of the House of Commons.

Working initially in quick brushstrokes to capture a likeness – the face, the hands and the body – with the sitter in front of her, June Mendoza would then fill in the clothes on her own. Pearls, ties and other pieces of costuming would be modelled on a bear that sat on a high chair in her studio.

She always worked from life, never from photographs (“I want nothing in between me and the person,” she explained), earning praise both for her sensitive way of handling paint and for her versatility. Various sitters also remarked on the sharpness of her observational skills – her way of “seeing right into your character”, as one put it.

June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (1)

With many of her subjects hailing from the upper echelons of society, the context in which they chose to be portrayed was often essential to the overall impression. Clothes could be elaborately ceremonial, and settings included some of the oldest and most imposing buildings in various different countries. Thus, Margaret Thatcher marked her 10th anniversary as prime minister with six sittings for June Mendoza at Downing Street and Chequers.

A portrait of Maria Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the former president of the Philippines, was painted in and for the sumptuous Malacañang Palace in Manila – even though the president had elected not to live there during her time in office, as part of an effort to distance herself from the decadence of her predecessor Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda.

An even more formidable challenge, from the point of view of the artist, was a 1987 panorama of the British House of Commons in session, completed over a period of 15 months. The scene took in the vaulted ceiling and high windows through which light fell onto the MPs below. At the Despatch Box was Margaret Thatcher, while every figure in the debating chamber – who had won a ballot in order to feature alongside the key players – was painstakingly and individually realised.

June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (2)

Though June Mendoza was too discreet – and, during any one sitting, too busy – to probe those she painted for intimate details about themselves, there were a number who stuck in the memory.

In 1984 a young Princess Diana elected to pose for her in front of a tapestry at Kensington Palace for a commission from the Worshipful Company of Grocers. Later June Mendoza recalled the “great fun” of browsing through the royal wardrobe for the right gown, and the touching concern of the “informal and easy” young woman herself, who would leave the previous night’s flowers out for her while she worked.

The Prince of Wales was so impressed by the finished work that he requested a painting of the late Earl Mountbatten of Burma – one of the few occasions on which she agreed to break her own rule by working from a photograph.

June Mendoza’s first time painting Queen Elizabeth II was in 1981, in a commission for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Due to an exceptionally busy schedule, time with the monarch was short, with sessions limited to one hour rather than the artist’s usual two. There were, however, certain advantages to working with someone who had been so frequently portrayed.

“She’s so used to it. It’s really two professional people working together,” she told The Daily Telegraph in 2012. “It was great fun – and cliffhanging because her face is not a sharp face, it’s not easy drawing.” Subsequent occasions allowed her to perfect the art of depicting pearls through repeated renditions of the monarch’s favourite three-stringed necklace, and to acquaint herself with other parts of the palace. “I was allowed to wander around”, she recalled, “and choose gorgeous chairs, bits and pieces on the wall, carvings – wonderful ideas for four different backgrounds.”

June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (3)

She was born in Melbourne on June 12 1924 to John Morton and his wife Doris (Dot). Both were theatre musicians, John playing the violin and Dot the piano. They would separate when June was six, eventually divorcing in 1942. Dot subsequently reverted to her maiden name of Mendoza, and her children would accompany her backstage when she toured with various Russian ballet companies. The experience gave June her first taste of performing, as she was called upon to make up the crowd scenes in productions.

Having left school early, she spent some time in professional theatre; but while her brother Peter eventually made acting the backbone of his career, for June it was her early talent for drawing that won out. Having moved to post-war London, she studied at St Martin’s School of Art and secured a job with the weekly comic magazine Girl, where her knowledge of dance was put to good use drawing the “Belle of the Ballet” strip.

She set up house in Earl’s Court – known in those days as “Kangaroo Valley” owing to the large quotient of Australians, New Zealanders and white South Africans – and paid her way with art, occasionally falling back on the barter system in order to make ends meet. She also sang with various bands and appeared in the West End, performing in Me and My Girl for the musical’s original star, Lupino Lane.

June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (4)

An early first marriage did not last, and her second husband died of a brain tumour. She married, thirdly, Keith Mackrell, an oil executive who went on to become a governor of the London School of Economics. In 1960 he was posted to the Philippines for five years, where an abundance of household servants gave June time to paint every day alongside the demands of raising a young family.

She and Keith had two daughters and a son together; another daughter was adopted at 13 days old. However, June never quite took to the expat life, and was glad to return to England – albeit briefly – before a four-year posting to Australia in 1969. While back in the country of her birth, she was officially commissioned to paint Sir John Gorton, Australia’s unconventional prime minister from 1968-71, whom she depicted informally dressed in an open-necked white shirt, red cravat and tan jacket. It was and remains the only official portrait of an Australian premier by a female artist.

June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (5)

By the mid-1970s she was settled in Wimbledon, and gaining notice for her renderings of actors and musicians. As her reputation became more established she was able to move away from “bread-and-butter” commissions from business and industry figures and devote a portion of her time to any subject who caught her eye. On occasion these chosen ones might turn out to be famous in their own right – one such was Madeline Bell, the jazz singer, who had impressed June with her elegance at a lunch gathering – but more often they were picked from a crowd of unknowns.

At the turn of the century she embarked on a long-running project with the Chelsea Pensioners – painting some in the famous red uniform with a full complement of medals, while at other times confining herself to the face in isolation. “Some artists choose St Paul’s at sunset,” she explained. “I choose people.”

For a time June Mendoza was the only female member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, as well as a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and an honorary member of the Society of Women Artists. She was appointed OBE in the 2004 New Year Honours.

June Mendoza, born June 12 1924, died May 16 2024

June Mendoza, portraitist who painted the Queen, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher – obituary (2024)
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