Her hair is brilliant the way the waves bounce. It's a shame she often

hides it with those 1930s hats -- Alison Watt

''I WAS gobsmacked when I heard -- someone like me painting someone

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like her.''

The ''someone like me'' is famous young Glasgow Girl, Alison Watt;

''someone like her'' is Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother -- ''pure dead

brilliant,'' says Watt -- who today celebrates her 89th birthday at

Clarence House. Traditionally Watt's new portrait is unveiled at the

National Portrait Gallery, Trafalgar Square. It is the first portrait of

her to be commissioned by them and the most recent acquisition since Sir

Gerald Kelly's 1938 traditional Queen Mum oil.

Watt's picture has already created controversy. A story leaked to

Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail by ''an insider'' quoted alarmist

accounts of ''complete caricature'' and ''great royal embarrassment.''

It would appear neither Dempster nor the insider had actually seen the

portrait, which is superb -- a good likeness and a good picture.

The calm figure radiating optimism and charm is neither unduly

flattered nor distorted. The composition is strong, even daring with its

abruptly cropped mantlepiece ornaments, intrusive chair arm and

eyecatching upturned teacup. The person is unquestionably the Queen Mum;

the painter unquestionably Watt. It is an informal portrait, as domestic

in its way as Sir James Gunn's 1950 Conversation Piece, but more honest.

Definitely no compromise here.

Alison Watt catapulted to fame when she won the #10,000 John Player

Award in 1987 while still a fourth-year Glasgow School of Art student.

The prize included a commission to paint a ''well-known sitter,'' the

picture then becoming part of the National Portrait Gallery's


Amid the furore created by a ''wacky self-portrait'' (her words)

complete with teacup perched on top of her head, and the additional coup

of being the second Glasgow School of Art student in two years to snatch

the prestigious award from under the noses of more than 700 professional

portrait painters of any and every age, little did she imagine who her

sitter was to be.

Other Player Award sitters selected from the great and good include

Paul McCartney, Lord Olivier, Julian Bream and Richard and David

Attenborough. Rosemary Beaton (Glasgow's first Player Award winner)

painted Sir Robin Day. Currently Allan Ramsay (also Glasgow) is busy on

Alan Ayckbourn, the playwright -- none in the same league as regards

stress, strain, responsibility, and the high profile reaction guaranteed

from the portrayal of a royal.

''I've been well warned that there's bound to be a lot of flak from

the royal ratpack press and tabloids. It's sure to offend because it

doesn't aim to flatter,'' Watt told me. ''But it seems strange that I've

been hassled by a couple of the trustees when they commissioned me to

paint the Queen Mother in the full knowledge of exactly what my

paintings are like.''

In an effort to prepare herself and make doubly sure that the Queen

Mother was happy with the picture, Watt, who had five one-hour sittings

over a period of several months, made a sixth visit to Clarence House

recently to take tea. ''It was just the Queen Mum, me and the picture. I

gave her every opportunity to criticise it. I was desperate for

criticism. But she seemed pleased. She was especially glad I'd included

one of her favourite pictures of herself in the background.''

Right from the start Watt's main objective was to produce an informal

portrait, ''as ordinary as possible'' bearing in mind the splendours of

the surroundings. ''I requested that she didn't wear one of her hats,

and as little jewellery as possible. There was a long silence on the

other end of the phone!'' In the event the Queen Mother went along with

Alison's request.

''I loved her dress, the large silky and matt spots were quite

adventurous. And her hair is brilliant the way the waves bounce. It's a

shame she often hides it with those 1930s hats. But I couldn't quite get

to grips with the fact that the huge diamonds she wears are real and not

from Butler and Wilson.''

At the first sitting, Watt was presented with ''a great throne thing

on velvet but I soon got them to take that away.'' She proceeded to

paint the Queen Mother, propped up on a great, grey tassled cushion in a

comfortable, if fairly regal Louis XVI-style chair, her shawl flung

casually over the lion's head embellishment.

''I sat her by a window where there was lots of light. The room was so

full of wonderful pictures, Van Dyke, Augustus John -- she has a

fabulous collection, so we had plenty to talk about. She is obviously a

great gallerygoer. She's been to all the current Royal Academy and Tate

exhibitions and is very well informed about them, really on the ball.

''She asked me about the shows I'd seen. And she was very keen on

knowing about Glasgow School of Art. She was very kind, too, and if I

didn't know what was on at which London gallery, or what time they shut,

she sent her staff off to check for me.''

Watt says she is a slow worker but always begins with a colour sketch,

never a drawing. However, at Clarence House she began straight on to the

white canvas. I just battered into it. The face formed very early on. I

tend to start from the eyes and work outwards.''

Watt prefers to paint her friends and fellow graduates, people she

knows well. ''Commissions are a bit of an ordeal. I do as few as

possible.'' After the face she heads straight for the hands. ''I am

obsessed with hands. It really offends me if artists fudge the hands.

Often they look like claws. I found it very difficult to paint the Queen

Mother's hands because she moved them quite a bit as she talked. But I

know it's problem.''

Watt's father is a painter, too -- ''When I got to Glasgow Art School

I expected everyone to have an artistic background. It seemed normal.''

At art school, then as now, she always thought and worked in colour.

''I can't use a pencil, it's so restricting. The thinnest thing I can

work with is a stick of pastel. I still use thick brushes when I

probably should take smaller ones. I only use a fine brush to pull it

all together at the end.''

Glasgow lecturer, Geoff Squire, was a great influence. ''So was

Barbara Rae because she was a very tough critic and we needed that.''

The judges found her award-winning Self Portrait with Tea Cup ''an

extremely sophisticated and witty work, full of mysterious ambiguity,

wonderfully atmospheric.'' A recent self portrait plus scissors and rose

is similarly witty but with a touch of cynicism. Still life props: egg

cups, a flowerpot loaf from the local delicatessen also traditionally

feature in her work. Indeed, her figures often hold bowls and dishes --

even a plate of bacon. Some of these pictures were seen last November in


She has no intention of moving away from Glasgow (indeed has just

bought a flat) and is currently working towards a new show to be held at

the London branch of the Scottish Gallery in March 1990. Like it or not,

the Queen Mother's portrait has put her on the map, and having seen some

of the new paintings currently in her Glasgow studio, I predict Alison

Watt is a name to be reckoned with.

And the upturned teacup? ''It was the only thing of mine, the only bit

of me that I could put in the picture.''