Richard Stone is one of the foremost international portrait painters of our times, and the most prolific royal painter of his generation. Since his first royal commission in 1973, when he painted the Queen Mother, almost every member of the Royal Family has sat for him, often on multiple occasions. They have included the late Queen, the late Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales (as he then was) and the Princess Royal.
In 1989 Colchester Borough Council commissioned him to paint the Queen as part of their celebrations for the 800th anniversary of the town’s first royal charter. The resulting work took three years, spaced over three summers when the Queen sat for him at in the Yellow Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, with a large piece of canvas spread over the carpet to prevent paint stains. “The Queen was a perfect sitter,” says Richard. “She took the job very seriously, although to start with I couldn’t get her look quite right. One morning she came in and lifted the George IV diadem from its tray and placed it on her head. The transformation was immediate. Suddenly it was the Queen before me – I had the look!” The resulting portrait has been described as one of the finest of her reign and was used by the BBC as their iconic screen image during the two weeks of mourning following the Queen’s death in September 2022.
Did the Queen ever let him know what she thought of the portrait? “At the end of the sittings I showed her the finished work and just as she was leaving the room, she turned to me and said: “That would make a good stamp!” says Richard. “Sure enough, the portrait was used over a decade later by the Royal Mail as part of their 2013 issue to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.”
The royal family are by no means the only famous subjects that Richard has painted. Other commissions have been for portraits of Nelson Mandela, Luciano Pavarotti, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Margaret Thatcher, whose portrait he painted six times. “We talked about everything except politics,” comments Richard. The portrait, which depicts Baroness Thatcher at the peak of her powers, was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was unveiled in 2009 and now hangs in her former study in 10 Downing Street which is used for meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Closer to home, Richard has painted gardener and plantswoman Beth Chatto, and two of the former partners at Scrutton Bland: Eric Bland and Geoffrey Lockhart. Richard recalls: “In the 1970s when my first commissions were starting to come in, I realised that I needed someone to look after my accounts. I asked around about who the best accountants were, and I was told ‘Bland Fielden’. Of course, they are now known as Scrutton Bland, and I have been with them for almost fifty years – which seems extraordinary!”
Richard’s artistic talents extend to animal portraiture too. His most famous animal portrait was of Koko the gorilla, created to raise funds for the Gorilla Foundation in America. The experience had a profound effect on him, as he was invited into the enclosure to ensure that Koko liked and trusted him enough to be near her while he worked. “She was an amazing creature, and had over 2,000 words of sign language, so I could ‘speak’ to her and vice versa. Sometimes she didn’t know how to verbalise what she wanted to say, so she would make up a word up to try and explain what she wanted to communicate.”
Sustaining such a successful career in such a competitive field has taken both hard work and considerable discipline. Richard works on about six projects simultaneously, although he says he is relieved not to have to travel quite so extensively these days. But does he still love what he does? “Undoubtedly! I told my mother I would paint the Queen when she took me to visit Buckingham Palace when I was four years old. How many of us can say our childhood dreams came so true?”