Painting Prince Philip | Apollo Magazine
‘Is that it? Are you sure?’ These were Prince Philip’s first words to me when he looked at my painting equipment during his first session for a portrait that I commissioned to paint in 2006: a small canvas no more than 30 x 30 cm high on my travel easel in a large room in Buckingham Palace. The painting was to be a series of three works for a charity, Muscular Dystrophy UK, of which the Prince had been the patron of the Prince for many decades. The other portraits were of Richard Attenborough and a distinguished scientist, but this one proved to be the most powerful to me: in part because Prince Philip gave me a bit of time, maybe four sessions of an hour or an hour and a half. Getting to know someone a little is critical to taking good portraits.
I had decided to do a small painting that only focused on Prince Philip’s face. It probably looked a bit ridiculous when I put my little canvas up in a huge, heavily gilded room where the royals always sit for portraits (two large, unfinished works by other artists stood in front of the wall). But at the time, the Duke of Edinburgh was increasingly being viewed as a caricature character, and I felt that recent portraits of him had picked up on that mood. I was determined to paint what I saw. In the long run, portraits are only really valuable if they are true. There’s no point in ridiculing or flattering someone unnecessarily: these things lose currency over time.
During the sessions, as far as I can remember, we were mostly left alone with a groom at the door. Portrait sessions work best when it’s just you and the sitter. Was he a patient sitter? He was certainly an alpha male, someone with a savage intelligence who got bored easily – but he couldn’t just walk away from a portrait that was sitting at a cocktail party. He would bark at things he thought were funny – and often they were very funny – or just to fill the silence. But our conversation was broad, spanning science, history, and foreign affairs. During the sessions, he began to throw curveballs at me as if to get me to take positions to argue against. During the second or third session he asked what I thought of the war in Afghanistan once he got the measure from me. “I don’t know what are you thinking?” I said. “No, no,” he said, “I asked you first.” He really wanted me to save on him – not the easiest thing to do with the prince consort when trying to paint his portrait. For me the whole experience was an act of juggling.
The prince asked many questions about my painting process during the sessions. “Why are you using this color now?”, “What’s in this glass?” and so on. The questions grew more specific, and finally I asked him if he had ever tried to paint himself. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I used to do it and I’m glad you asked me because I actually did it again recently.” Then he said something that as a professional artist I am afraid to hear: “I would like to show you some of these and hear what you think.”
I hoped he would forget – and before the next session I was pretty nervous about what to say. He wasn’t the type to be appeased with a fluffy, flat waffle. But I’m sure he would have the pictures in the next session – and I quietly panicked. At this point he knew he had no fools wWhat would i say But When he pulled them out, they weren’t what I expectedG. I was very relieved: theThey were the work of a good amateur painter with beautiful colors, done in the style of early 20th century French painting, a Bonnard, a little bit Vuillard. They weren’t evil or powerful, but rather subtle and slightly romantic. Some were Gauguinesque paintings of South Sea islanders, paintings from his time in the Navy, then there was a painting of the Queen across the room at breakfast and current landscapes, views from the windows of Sandringham I believe.
It turned out that my concern was unnecessary. He didn’t really ask if I liked her, but if I had any tips on how to paint certain things better. That seemed representative of the character I saw as a whole: far less interested in thinking about what others were saying about him thought than about how to solve problems and move on. Practically not emotional.
When I look at my portrait of Prince Philip 15 years later, I see a painting of a man with a restless mind. He might be about to say something funny or provocative or something very perceptive. He will definitely say something. He struck me as a person who would be great to know – and difficult to know or live with. Hopefully that will come across in the picture.
I didn’t ask what he thought of the portrait. I think it’s a protocol that royals don’t comment on their portraits, and I’ve learned over the years that a portrait’s subject’s immediate response has little to do with its broader or long-term success. I later heard that other members of the royal family liked it – and it’s much more comforting to know that people who really know the sitter will feel like you got it right. Prince Philip came and looked at it at the end of the last session. He smiled but said nothing.