PROFILE OF RICHARD STONE BY NORMAN WELLS
Enduring fairy tales often involve monarchs and children – like the one about the four-year-old boy who stood outside a royal palace and announced to his mother that he would one day paint the Queen’s portrait; which duly came to pass. Only, this story is true.
Richard Stone stood outside Buckingham Palace and made that prediction in 1955. Its realisation was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in 1992, by which time the postman’s son from Colchester had established himself as one of the Royal Family’s favourite portrait artists. To date he has produced one royal portrait a year for the past thirty years – including five of the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother – and has painted all the members of the recent Royal Family except the late Princess Diana.
The young Richard was nearly denied the chance to pursue his ambition, or any other for that matter. At Christmas 1955, just months after he’d stood outside Buckingham Palace, he fell down the stairs at his family’s semi-detached house in Colchester, sustaining serious head injuries which put him in a coma for weeks. ‘As fate would have it, I ended up being terribly deaf,’ said Richard. ‘For the following two years I found hearing extremely difficult and I was tormented daily with extraordinary noises in my head. My parents took me to every possible specialist to see whether anything could be done to repair my broken eardrum.’ Richard remains partially deaf today.
His deafness meant an isolated existence at primary school, where teachers let him draw most of the time. ‘I’m convinced that, as it was my only source of amusement – and, quite possibly, communication – it created in me a need to draw quickly and, perhaps, accurately. I think I developed a facility to draw quite well because I could do nothing else.’
Later, at secondary school, Richard was encouraged to draw by his art teacher and headmaster. ‘But the person I pay most tribute to was a neighbour, Fred Heron. An amateur painter, he saw me painting in the garden and convinced my parents I was worth the investment in a box of oil colours. Fred then gave me exercises in paint and technique, and an appreciation of art through his book collection.’
In 1965, Fred Heron took Richard to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition for his fourteenth birthday. ‘There, I stopped dead in front of a picture by Sir Gerald Kelly of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It had such a presence. It sort of came out of the frame and shook you by the hand. It was a revelation for me, a life-changing circumstance. I wrote a fan letter to Gerald Kelly, who’d been President of the Royal Academy after Sir Alfred Munnings, saying I wanted to become a portrait painter. He replied, asking me to bring as much of my work as I could to his London studio; adding that he’d try to dissuade me from embarking on such a dangerous course.’
Richard had spent a year attending weekly life classes at Colchester School of Art, and had added to his portfolio. Kelly’s secretary asked him to spread his work across the floor of the great artist’s drawing room. Richard recalled: ‘Sir Gerald, who was in his eighties, shuffled in and took some time looking at the drawings before saying: “Mr Stone, thank you for bringing your work. A lot of enthusiasm, but not much talent. Thank you for coming.”
‘I was stunned, assuming I was this little artistic star at my secondary school producing what I thought were more than competent drawings of the nude. Sir Gerald could see I was upset and explained that, in his teens, he’d worked as an artist’s assistant in Paris. He showed me a tiny clay model of a hand. Rodin had given it to him for helping prepare clay for the great sculptor.
Looking at the hand, Sir Gerald then started educating me, saying you don’t need the whole body or figure to understand or represent someone’s personality – you could tell a lot about the figure behind that hand just by looking at it – and adding: “That’s what missing from your work. You have a facility to draw but it has no presence.”
‘He was opening up a new vista for me in understanding art. He asked me to fetch a panel from the corner of the studio. It was a landscape painting I identified as a work by an Impressionist, the only one of whom I could think of was Monet.“That’s right,” he said.
“At weekends I became Monet’s barrow-boy when he was painting the ‘Lily Pond’ series. My job was to walk round with a special wheelbarrow carrying canvases lined up with times marked on them. I had to be one canvas or so ahead when Monet was working round the pond, and I had to set out the palette and brushes and have the canvas up on the easel so he could move effortlessly from one picture to another – because he was so precise about capturing the light at specific times.”
‘Of course, to handle something Monet had given him was phenomenal. Sir Gerald had so many stories, and when I left he said: “Come again, and I’ll tell you some more.” I asked if I could help him around the studio, but he declined, saying: “You can bring your work to me as often as you like. I’ll look at it for you. But if you become my assistant you’ll just become another Gerald Kelly. You’ve got to be a Richard Stone.”
’There began a kind of friendship between the keen youngster and the old master. Over four years, Richard gained in skill under Sir Gerald’s freely given tutelage. ‘The first exercise he set me was to paint a peach. I painted several, but he didn’t like any of them. He said: “You want to become a portrait painter: capture the bloom on the flesh of a peach and you’re part way to understanding the way the light falls, and the effect that’s created, on the human skin.” He sent me off to paint more, and the exercise continued over the time I knew him.’
Richard’s parents were keen their son should go to an art school, thinking a diploma would be a useful qualification. Kelly thought otherwise, believing Richard had the kind of personality to present himself well enough to attract work. Despite his developing skills, Richard was turned down by the Royal Academy, the Slade and the Colchester School of Art. ‘They did me a favour,’ he reflects. ‘What they did was to spur me on to go it alone. My parents were worried, but did nothing to dissuade me; and Sir Gerald kindly spoke to them, saying he thought I would make a go of it.’
With Sir Gerald Kelly’s encouragement, Richard had already produced a portrait of Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Musick, while he was still at school. Sir Gerald pronounced it his pupil’s best to date; there was no more he could teach him and it was time to ‘knock on doors’. Within weeks he was dead.
‘I can’t describe the thrill of meeting that man,’ said Richard. ‘After much persuasion he showed me his own work. The commission that gave him the most pleasure, and the most agony, was painting the state portraits of George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. He spent seven years on those at Windsor Castle, and said what a wonderful person the Queen Mother was – a perfect sitter, as I might find out were I ever to paint her portrait.
‘After he died I phoned Clarence House. The person who had the misfortune to pick up the phone was Lord Adam Gordon, Comptroller to the Queen Mother’s household. He said he couldn’t have any Tom, Dick or Harry ringing up for sittings with the Queen Mother as she was a very busy lady – to which I replied he hadn’t even seen my work yet: I could be a latter-day Rembrandt! The line went quiet. Eventually he spoke, asking me to bring my portfolio to his office. Once he’d seen it, he
commissioned me to draw his wife and invited me to a party where, he said, there were people from the Court who’d be interested in meeting me. It was through them that I achieved my first sitting with the Queen Mother.’
Any royal commission has to be granted through an official commissioning body – and Lord Adam Gordon told Richard that the Royal Anglian Regiment were about to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their amalgamation. As the Queen Mother was their honorary Colonel-in-Chief, an official portrait would be appropriate to mark the occasion. A second portrait for the regiment followed soon after.
‘The Queen Mother was amazingly generous with her time,’ said Richard, ‘and would invite me for lunch or tea and to meet friends. She would bring her family to view the portraits in progress. It was astonishing, really – I was only twenty-one. She had an amazing presence. She was the consummate professional when it came to meeting people and making them feel welcome and comfortable, and she was interested in so many things. We’d chat about art. It was wonderful hearing her talk about sitting for artists like John Singer Sargent, Augustus John, Graham Sutherland, John Bratby and, of course, Gerald Kelly – she’d sat for everyone.’
Other royal work followed, including a commission from Colchester’s mayor (now its MP), Bob Russell, for a portrait of the Queen to mark the 800th anniversary of the town’s first Royal Charter. Having realised his boyhood ambition, Richard would later donate the picture to the town. ‘The sittings were difficult to fit in with the Queen’s schedule, and I had to spread them over three summers when the light was consistent. She gave me some ten sittings, after which I went to Buckingham Palace to study the Parliamentary Robes of State she’s wearing in the picture.’
Starting with sketches on a ten-inch by eight-inch canvas, the final portrait ended up being eight feet by five feet. ‘It’s probably been the picture that most people will remember – one I invested a phenomenal amount of time in. I gave up all other work for three years. The nicest
compliment I’ve ever had came when the Queen herself selected it for a print from all her portraits as the one that best summed up her role. During her sittings she had been fascinating, funny and marvellous company. Hopefully some of those aspects show through in the portrait.’
While his portraits of the Royal Family are Richard’s best-known works, they only account for a small part of his output. ‘Being ever mindful that the mortgage is paid from commissions I receive, I have to know where the next one’s coming from,’ he said. He often travels abroad to paint portraits of private individuals and corporate figures as well as those in the public eye. These have included a senior industry official in China – where the government banquet to unveil the portrait was so grand that Richard thought he had been mistaken for Tony Blair – and, to generate funds for charities, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Australian diva Dame Joan Sutherland, and Baroness Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister.
While his portfolio includes some of the world’s best-known people, Richard insists his subjects don’t have to be celebrities to ‘give him a buzz’. ‘Everyone has the most remarkable story to tell, no matter what their background. It’s an enormous privilege to be in a situation where they trust me enough to want to tell me that story, and it’s useful in the process of painting the portrait. It’s an unusual circumstance meeting a stranger who is somehow totally focused on you. It’s the people that give me the excitement and the interest – and you don’t have to be famous to create the kind of energy and stimulation I need to paint a portrait.’