Art of Stone
He’s painted everyone from the Queen Mother to Mandela, and now Richard Stone is working on inspiring the next generation of artists in Africa. He tells Martha Gill how it all began
IF YOU WERE picking a companion with whom to travel into the heart of Africa, Richard Stone would be a surprising choice. He’s the UK’s most prolific royal portrait painter, and has spent his life gently acclimatising to the drawing rooms of Buckingham Palace. But recently he ended up in Kenya, acting as a mentor to bright children who wanted to learn how to paint.
In his own painting career Stone has been extraordinarily lucky with mentors — although it all started with a bad fall.
‘When I was on the cusp of starting school I had a rather serious accident which left me almost totally deaf,’ he says. ‘I would turn up for lessons but I was plainly unteachable, because I couldn’t hear what the teachers were saying.’ His teachers put him in a corner with some pencils and he started to draw. They would send his pictures off for various competitions. He later recovered his hearing, but the private world he was forced into had left him with a skill. ‘If I didn’t have a talent, I certainly had a sort of trick,’ he admits.
The trick was developed with the help of a neighbour who took him on sketching trips and introduced him to the world of artists. Stone quickly realised that it was also a ‘passport to other people’s lives’. ‘The grander houses in the area would invite me across for tea — I would be asked to draw the visitors. This was when I started enjoying meeting people.’
On his fourteenth birthday he was taken to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which showed the leading portrait painters of the day. He was particularly taken with a portrait of George VI by Sir Gerald Kelly and wrote a fan letter asking if Kelly could give him some tips. He wrote back by return: ‘Why don’t you bring as much work as you can to my studio, and I will try to dissuade you.’
‘He wasn’t wildly impressed,’ Stone says. ‘I don’t think he thought I was wildly talented. Sensing this, I was acutely embarrassed.’
Stone during his trip to Nairobi
NEVERTHELESS, KELLY TOOK him under his wing for four years, proving a ‘monumental influence’. Kelly’s favourite sitter was the Queen Mother — ‘she was a perfect sitter’ — and Stone resolved to paint her one day.
‘When he passed away [in 1972] I telephoned Clarence House and asked if the Queen Mother would sit for me — that’s where it all started. I placed the telephone call and asked to speak to someone important. I was put through to a man called Adam Gordon, who politely asked what I wanted. When I made my request, he said, “We can’t have any Tom, Dick or Harry asking if she can sit.”
‘I said, “Adam, I could be a latter-day Rembrandt — could you just look at my work?” The line went dead. I thought he had hung up.’ After looking at his work, Gordon commissioned a portrait of his wife and invited Stone to a cocktail party where he ‘might meet people who would help him in his quest to paint the Queen Mother’. He did, and, aged nineteen, he became the youngest Royal portrait painter in 200 years. Was she as good a sitter as he had hoped?
‘She was probably one of the most painted members of the Royal family. Every great and distinguished portrait painter has painted her. What made painting her so good is that she recounted details of being painted by all these famous people. She was interested in painting, and aware of the technical difficulties. She didn’t treat having a portrait painted as an occupational hazard, as most members of the Royal family did.’
The Queen Mother put his career on an accelerated footing, and since then he has been passed round most of the Royal family. So what does he make of Paul Emsley’s much pilloried recent portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge?
‘I thought it was a good picture. It is a picture that is typical of the artist, is a nice portrait of a very nice young woman. The criticism has been too harsh. A lot of portraits in repose do make people look older and more serious. The fact that it is such a detailed study of her features — it is inevitable that she could look older than we think she does. We have seen lots of photographs of her, but photographs are a nanosecond, you catch her in motion, perhaps laughing, so she will of course look young and vivacious.’
Stone painted Nelson Mandela in 2008
ALL PORTRAIT PAINTERS have brushes with criticism, though. Stone’s was at the hands of Princess Margaret. ‘The trouble is that people see the studies when you are midway through — before you really have an idea of how they are going to turn out. On this occasion — I was in the middle of painting Princess Margaret and she took a quick look at the piece. “Mr Stone, as you know I’ve been suffering from flu for the last two weeks,” she said, “and I think you’ve caught it.” Some adjustments had to be made.’
Gradually, his career took him back outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. ‘On my list of top ten people I have always wanted to paint were Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu,’ he says. He painted both, and while doing so both felt a need to expose him to the everyday life of South Africa. He became aware of the life of children in the slums.
‘I was on a flight to New York when someone spilled soup on my tie. In the process of getting me cleaned up, the steward started talking to me about his interest in a place called Nyumbani Children’s Home — the BA crew are big fundraisers. I am often asked to support good causes, but here I got more involved. I was then offered the opportunity to visit, ten years ago, and I took my wife and son there.’
Nyumbani, in Nairobi, houses abandoned children from the Aids pandemic and has also branched out to community-based outreach programmes in the surrounding area. Last summer Stone took some art materials out to teach the children how to paint: ‘I didn’t want it to be a sort of art programme whereby the art was going to be generic — I felt that the more raw materials the artwork came from, the better.’ The idea was to sell the art back in England so the children would be contributing to their own fundraising.
‘The course was structured along the lines of showing them what pieces of their past were most greatly valued by museums and people around the world,’ says Stone. ‘Something very basic could be very beautiful if it had a pattern on it. To my real amazement we made some beautiful things. Now that they’re finished, they suddenly look like real treasure.’
The children’s artwork from Richard Stone’s Nyumbani project goes online at nyumbani.org.uk at the end of February, ahead of an online auction on 6-7 March that will close with a fundraising gala hosted by Baroness Morris of Yardley at the House of Commons on 7 March