Official portrait: The poppy that paints Blair as a warmonger

Artist uses bright red flower against washed-out colours of ex-prime minister's suit as comment on Iraq

He must have felt safe. For his first ever official portrait, Tony Blair agreed to be painted by Jonathan Yeo, the son of a Conservative MP – hardly a radical, so unlikely to mention the war. Mr Blair had recently spent his final days as Prime Minister trying to ensure he would be remembered for something – anything – other than the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But he was wearing a poppy, because the sitting was around the time of Remembrance Sunday. And when the portrait was unveiled last week, it showed the red flower burning bright against the washed-out colours of his suit – looking like a strong comment on the war. "I very slightly exaggerated it through colour," said the artist, who had been looking for a way to comment on Iraq.

The meaning depends on what you already think of Mr Blair, apparently: "Some people say, 'Oh you've made him look incredibly thoughtful, remorseful, and respectful', and others say, 'You've put him in the dock as a warmonger'."

At least the portrait, acclaimed by the critics, looks like its subject. People in Mr Blair's position often have no control over the way they are remembered – as was obvious when the Louis Tussauds House of Wax put some of its figures up for sale last week. Famous for containing possibly the worst waxworks in the world, the museum in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, is offering one sturdy example with a straw-coloured mop top that could be a Saturday afternoon wrestler from the Seventies. Except it is meant to be Princess Diana.

There are another half dozen whose identity the museum has, quite frankly, forgotten. It's not as if you can tell just by looking at them...

As for Mr Blair, he was upbeat and full of "Tigger-like energy" during the two-hour sitting, according to Yeo. That may have been delight at having just signed a £5m book deal or glee at the troubles of his rival turned successor. "It was a few weeks into Gordon Brown coming off the rails."

Mr Blair turned down all portrait requests while in office, but the new painting will hang at Lincoln's Inn, where the former lawyer was a member. "It's going on display opposite Margaret Thatcher," said the artist. "I don't think he knows that yet."