Tom Wood (b.1955)
Two paintings came out of the Prince's commission; the first, smaller version, remains in his ownership, and the other is this more ambitious work, which has a greater emphasis on symbolic subject matter...
This portrait of Prince Charles, which was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London for twelve years, can be considered one of the most successful royal portrait commissions of the twentieth century. It was highly praised by Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the National Portrait Gallery, who, after seeing this portrait in 1989, said ‘I think it is the best portrait I’ve ever seen of him’.
Prince Charles first met the artist Tom Wood whilst visiting an exhibition of his work at the Dean Clough Art Gallery in Halifax in 1987, and shortly after requested a sitting with the artist. Two very different portraits were produced from the subsequent sittings; the first remains in the ownership of the Prince and the other, the present work, was produced simultaneously with his permission. This portrait is much larger and more ambitious than the other version, with a greater emphasis on symbolic subject matter.
The first sitting took place in October 1988 at the Prince’s country house, Highgrove in Gloucestershire, and after much discussion it was agreed that the portrait should be informal and show the private Prince, rather than in an official role. During the second visit to Highgrove in 1988, the Prince showed Tom Wood around the Walled Garden, sitting and posing for him under a pergola. This sowed a seed in the artist’s mind for the setting and arrangement of this portrait.
The 40 year-old prince, wearing a suit, is shown in his garden, immersed in nature and looking directly at the viewer. His lips are slightly parted, as if he is in conversation and is listening carefully to what is being said. The encounter is intimate, rather than formal and his expression is attentive, empathetic and concerned. The silhouette of a classical building, topped with urns and reminiscent of Highgrove, vaguely suggests a crown, and on either side of the Prince are two brooding ghost-like presences, each looking away. They are suggestive of the Prince at different ages, and are also Janus-like, looking into the past and the future. The enigmatic figures may be a reference to Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s triple-portrait of the Prince’s namesake, Charles I, which hangs in the Royal Collection. The side of the plinth is decorated with an antique relief of a lion’s head, and as with all of Wood’s symbols, it is open to interpretation. Perhaps here, it is an image of strength, of royalty and of England.
In late 1989, Prince Charles returned to Halifax to view a special exhibition, HRH The Prince of Wales: A Portrait Commission, which included both portraits with related sketches. The exhibition then toured to Agnew’s in Old Bond Street, London where it was seen privately by Diana, Princess of Wales. During the Agnew’s exhibition, this portrait was sold to a private collector and the National Portrait Gallery immediately requested it to be loaned. The portrait was displayed on the Royal Landing alongside Pietro Annigoni’s portrait of The Queen throughout the 1990s until the owner requested its return in 2012. Prince Charles agreed to loan his version of the portrait to Dean Clough Gallery, where it remains on display in the art gallery.
 M. Bailey, ‘Prince Charles: Controversial New Portrait’ in Observer Magazine, 3 September 1989