He has painted the world’s elite, but before he got his finances in order, royal portraitist Richard Stone considered himself a struggling artist.
West Bergholt Lodge has been the home of royal portrait painter Richard Stone and his wife Rhonda for the past 18 years. It is also Richard’s studio and the showcase for his work. Yet his St. James’s Place Partner had to persuade him that he could afford to buy it.
Richard is the most prolific royal painter of his generation. Since he painted the Queen Mother in 1973, numerous members of the family have sat for him, often more than once. They have included the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal.
His large 1991 canvas of the Queen has been described as one of the finest of her reign, though some were shocked by the lines on her face. She herself joked that it would ‘make a good stamp’.
Clearly, the family likes his work. It helps that they feel comfortable with him, and that he’s discreet. ‘I’m tried and tested, I suppose,’ Richard says. ‘I don’t slop paint on the carpet. Most importantly, if I say I require a sitting of an hour and a quarter, I don’t go beyond that.’
These virtues have made him sought after far beyond royal circles. Other subjects have included Baroness Thatcher, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dame Joan Sutherland, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, Luciano Pavarotti and Beth Chatto. He recently completed a portrait of Nelson Mandela, which was then auctioned to raise money for the great man’s Aids charities. It was bought for £400,000 by actors Will Smith, Emma Thompson and Uma Thurman, who will share the picture between them.
Painting is a business for Richard, but it’s also a passion. ‘I paint every day, because I love it,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I get so excited I lose sight of the number of hours I’m putting in. When you’re quoting you can’t always quantify the time it will take, and some pictures are just much more difficult to paint.’
So, with some portraits, the months roll on into years, raising the eyebrows of Michael Duley, Richard’s long-standing St. James’s Place Partner. Their relationship dates back to 1990, when Richard and Rhonda first fell in love with the elegant early Victorian mansion on the outskirts of Colchester. ‘I thought I was still a struggling artist, and that the house was beyond my means,’ Richard recalls.
He said as much to a friend and former sitter, Ronnie Lancaster, who asked to look at his accounts. ‘Ronnie said I had money going all over the place and that I needed expert advice to co-ordinate my affairs. That’s when he introduced me to Michael Duley.’’
Duley advised Richard on where savings could be made and how best to raise a mortgage, and Richard put in an offer for the house. ‘He has stood right by me for 18 years now, looking after my pension plans and insurance for me, and he has become an extremely good friend.’
The house is the perfect backdrop for Richard’s paintings, many of which grace the walls. But Richard leaves it more often these days, with commissions in China, South Africa and the US. His American clients include Nancy Reagan, Julie Andrews and, curiously, a 22-stone gorilla named Koko.
The Koko project was initiated by William, Richard’s 14-year-old son. He persuaded his father that a portrait could help raise much-needed money for the Gorilla Foundation. Koko’s minders said the project could only work if Koko liked him, and he flew to California for a getting-to-know-you session.
‘It involved lying next to her [separated by a fence] for two days while she touched me, inspected my teeth and did bits of subtle grooming,’ Richard says. ‘On the third day she did me the great honour of inviting me into her compound.’ Koko, who has an extensive sign-language vocabulary, signalled her approval of the painting.
Back home, Richard is completing a huge portrayal of the wedding of the Earl and Countess of Wessex, destined to hang in Buckingham Palace.