Ben Enwonwu: The Nigerian artist who made a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II

The year was 1956, and there was much fanfare and anticipation for Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Nigeria.

The young monarch was only a few years into her reign and was making a much-anticipated visit to the West African country, which had yet to become a republic.

Prior to his arrival, renowned Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu received a royal commission to commemorate his visit with a statue, making him the first African artist to create an official portrait of a member of the royal family.

I started working on the sculpture the following year, visiting Buckingham Palace in London for several sessions.

“In 1957, Queen Elizabeth II sat down for Enwonwu for a large bronze sculpture,” noted the royal collection trustwho oversees the British Royal Family’s art collection.
Ben Enwonwu working on the Queen's bronze sculpture

Ben Enwonwu working on the Queen’s bronze sculpture Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

In all, Queen Elizabeth has sat Enwonwu 12 times, including eight at Buckingham Palace, according to the Ben Enwonwu Foundation. website.

The rest of the sessions took place in a private studio owned by Sir William Reid-Dick, Enwonwu’s colleague at the Royal Society of British Artists.

Meanwhile, Enwonwu “has completed a portrait bust and a sketch model of the sculpture”, according to the foundation.

Ben Enwonwu and HM Elizabeth II looking at his sculpture of the Queen

Ben Enwonwu and HM Elizabeth II looking at his sculpture of the Queen Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

“African characteristics”

Enwonwu finished the sculpture in 1957 and raised some eyebrows at the time for portraying the queen with fuller lips. His son Oliver said it was part of Ben Enwonwu’s signature style of “Africanizing” his subjects.

“Some of the rave reviews the sculpture received was that the artist depicted the queen through her African eyes, the work had African characteristics, which was characteristic of her work,” Oliver Enwonwu told CNN.

Oliver, also a renowned artist, described the Queen’s sculpture as one of his father’s greatest works.

“My dad was very proud of it. It was one of his masterpieces that showed his dexterity as an artist,” he told CNN.

“At the time, it was (Enwonwu making a sculpture of the Queen) a big deal because he was an African artist. But he was the most famous in the Commonwealth at the time, so it was very easy to tell him give the go-ahead.” Olivier added.

Unveiling of the statue in Nigeria

Unveiling of the statue in Nigeria Credit: Courtesy of Oliver Enwonwu/The Ben Enwonwu Foundation

While the sculpture later ended up in Nigeria, Queen Elizabeth acquired the bust and, according to the Royal Collection Trust, had another sculpture of Enwonwu as well as a number of his paintings.

The Queen’s bronze was then placed in the Nigerian parliament ahead of preparations for the country’s independence from Britain in 1960.

The work now resides in the Nigerian National Museum.

An influential African artist

Enwonwu became one of Africa’s greatest modernists.

His portrait of Nigerian Princess Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi, nicknamed the “African Mona Lisa”, sold for over $1.6 million (£1,205,000) at a London auction in 2018.

Born in 1917, Enwonwu has been described as the most influential African artist of the 20th century.

He had become a prominent artist even before his royal commission, and in 1954 he received a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) award from the Queen for his services to art.

Enwonwu won a scholarship in 1944 from Shell West Africa and the British Council to study fine art in the UK after a successful solo exhibition. I was classically trained at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and attended Oxford University. Enwonwu then returned to Nigeria to become a lecturer.

He was appointed Nigeria’s first professor of art by the University of Ife, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University, in 1971 and received a National Merit Award from the Nigerian government nine years later.

He died in 1994 at the age of 77.