Richard Stone (b. 1951)
Her Majesty’s head is turned slightly over her shoulder, showing a fuller face than the almost true profile that can be seen in the full-sized portrait. The robes are painted with great subtlety and attention to the fall of light that was the result of an intricated lighting set-up...
‘The nicest compliment I’ve ever had’, said Richard Stone of his portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, ‘came when the Queen herself selected it for a print from all her portraits as the one that best summed up her role’...
Painted over the summers of 1989-91, this portrait represents the culmination of seven hour-long sittings that were taken of the Queen from life, and countless other studies from a lay mannequin that was set up in her place in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. It is one of several studies for a much larger work that was commissioned from Stone by the Borough of Colchester in honour of the 800th anniversary of the receipt of its first royal charter.
Stone worked tirelessly to execute the Colchester portrait and over the course of the three years required for its completion, he refused to take any other work. The present portrait is a testament to the great pains that Stone took over the commission. It is the most highly-finished of a series of studies that Stone made for the finished work. In it, we can see a process of experimentation at work and the care that he took to achieve his aim, which was ‘to portray her extraordinary inner strength and steadfastness’. Her Majesty’s head is turned slightly over her shoulder, showing a fuller face than the almost true profile that can be seen in the full-sized portrait. The robes are painted with great subtlety and attention to the fall of light that was the result of an intricated lighting set-up. For her part, the Queen was a committed sitter, despite constraints on her time. Stone later remembered how she once arrived to a sitting shoeless and with the George IV diadem that she wears dangling on her arm because, she explained, she could not run with it on her head.
When the finished full-length portrait of the Queen was unveiled, the painting was front-page news. With the sitter on his side, Stone was able to announce to the papers that ‘she has seen the painting and is delighted with it’. In fact, the Queen was so thrilled with the likeness that she remarked ‘it would make a very good stamp’. This became reality in 2013 when a head study produced in preparation for the Colchester portrait was reproduced as a stamp to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.
That Stone should have been chosen for this lofty commission was particularly apposite for Colchester is Stone’s home town. But when Stone stated aged only four that his ambition in life was to paint a portrait of the Queen there was little in Stone’s background to suggest that this dream might one day be realised. His parents were no art-lovers and nor did they express any
interest in royal iconography, with the only image of the Queen in the house being her photograph on a biscuit tin. Yet, it is a tribute both to Stone’s determination and to his talent that he has since become a favourite court artist.
Determination and self-assuredness have been two of the hallmarks of Stone’s work as an artist. They were skills that he needed to learn early as aged only four – the same year in which he stated his ambition to paint the Queen – he suffered a severe accident. It left him in a coma for weeks and his parents, who were warned to expect brain damage if ever he awoke, fearing the worst. When, to his parents’ considerable relief, he was brought out of hospital, it was with his hearing severely impaired. Deaf for his first two years at school, he turned to drawing as a means of communicating. Before long, the budding artist began to win prizes and was encouraged to explore his artistic bent more fully. Aged fourteen, he made a visit to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that was to change his life. Impressed by the work of Sir Gerald Kelly, he made it his mission to secure an introduction to the artist, a former president of the Royal Academy who had served as assistant to both Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin.
Kelly – Stone has said – did his best to dissuade the young man from taking up the business of portraiture but, single-minded and convinced of his own talents, he refused to be shown the door. Kelly, impressed, gave the artist free tuition, and indeed friendship, until his death in 1972. By this point, however, he had declared his protégé ready to make his entrée into the world of high society portraiture. Following an early portrait of Sir Arthur Bliss, the ‘Master of the Queen’s Musick’, Stone decided to set his sights high and make an approach to no less a figure than Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, herself. He phoned Lord Adam Gordon, Comptroller of the Royal Household, and – before he could be turned away as a nuisance caller – opened the conversation by saying, ‘don’t ring off, I could be the latter-day Rembrandt’. Gordon agreed to view the artist’s portfolio and, impressed, invited him to a cocktail party whereby he could secure an introduction to the Queen Mother’s courtiers (not before himself commissioning a portrait of his wife).
With his portrait of the Queen Mother, Stone aged only twenty-one became the youngest royal artist since Sir Thomas Lawrence, who had painted his first royal commission almost two hundred years earlier. The portrait was a great success and became the first in a long line of royal commissions. Few modern-day artists can make claim to having painted so complete a roll-call of members of the royal family as Stone, with his sitters including the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, Princess Margaret, Prince Michael of Kent and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. In 1999, moreover, he was commissioned to paint the wedding of the Earl and Countess of Wessex – the first such portrait of a royal wedding since 1863. More recently, in 2015, Stone was commissioned to paint another portrait of the Queen which was presented to her by the Commonwealth nations at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting Reception in St James's Palace, 27th October 2015. It now hangs in pride of place on the main staircase in the palace. Other distinguished patrons, including Nelson Mandela whom Stone painted in 2008, have been as impressed with his abilities as the royals, with Margaret Thatcher saying of his portrait that ‘it is as one would like to be remembered’ and acclaiming him as ‘one of the finest portrait painters of our time’.