South China Morning Post

British Artist on his brush with royalty and the Taliban

Portrait of the artist as a young man

I come from an affluent, military family. When I was seven I was sent away to boarding school. Boarding schools were extremely strict back then – if you were caught talking after lights out, you were caned. I was dyslexic, so I found it difficult to read and write. I had a horrible English teacher who made me stand in front of the class and spell out words. Every time I made a mistake, she beat me on the back of my legs. Fortunately the art teacher – Mrs Rothery – was wonderful. She was very eccentric and wore bright blue eye shadow and smoked cigars. She introduced me to the great painters and encouraged my artistic development. Art was an escape, and something I found very exciting. Those early experiences encouraged my rebellious side and taught me to think independently and challenge conventional orthodoxy. At secondary school I had more supportive teachers and started to enjoy academic study. By the time I got to university those demons I’d had as a child, thinking I was stupid, had been silenced.

Tale of two cities

When I decided to pursue a career as an artist, my father made it clear that if I chose not to live in the “real” world – whatever that is – I’d be on my own finan­cially. I travelled to Florence and started off sleeping in an Anglican church. The priest there was kind to me, so I offered to create a monument commemorating the men from my father’s regiment, the Welsh Guards, who died liberating Florence during [the second world war]. The Welsh Guards donated the marble. I’d never carved marble before but I learnt how to sculpt a bas relief. One of the guests at the unveiling cere­mony was Princess Giorgiana Corsini. She invited me to become artist-in-residence at her family’s palace, so within a couple of months of arriving penniless, I found myself living in the orangery at Palazzo Corsini [in Florence].

After three years studying at art academies in Florence, I heard about a Russian art school, the Repin Academy, which has an almost mythical status amongst artists. I flew to St Petersburg, introduced myself to the director and announced that I wanted to study there. He was somewhat surprised, because they had never had a student from the West before. But he looked at my work and gave me a place, and I spent two years studying under a Russian master.

Alexander Talbot Rice’s portrait of Pope Benedict

A BRUSH WITH ROYALTY When I’m painting a portrait, I don’t just draw the architecture of the face – I try to capture the soul of the person. It has to come from the heart. If you paint with a feeling of love, then the personality of the person automatic­ally comes into the picture. It hinges on the way you perform each pencil or brush stroke. Strokes might be gentle and sensitive, or might have strength and passion in their execution. It happens subliminally – it’s mysterious, and I don’t completely understand it. It’s an incredibly intimate experience. The trust of the sitter, and the affirmation of that trust as they see the picture develop, creates a very close bond. No matter who they are, you feel that they are in your care while you are painting them.

My first royal portrait was of the Duke of Edinburgh. He’s famous for being irascible and I was extremely nervous. I turned up at Buckingham Palace feeling shy, although I got a huge kick out of driving my little Mini Cooper into the front courtyard. I was met by a footman who showed me down passageways and up staircases, past paintings by the Old Masters, and I remember thinking “no pressure, then”. I was taken to the yellow drawing room, and given tea and Duchy biscuits while I waited. With the combination of tea and nerves, I felt an urgent need to pee, so I went in search of a loo. I had only just got back when the duke arrived. He shook my hand and spotted that my trouser flies were gaping open. He said, “You should get yourself a zipper!” We both laughed, which broke the ice. After that, everything went fine.

HRH Duke of Edinburgh

Smiling Queen

I painted the queen sitting in her coronation coach in the Royal Mews. It was wintertime and freezing cold. I’d just had knee surgery and was hopping around on one leg, which made her giggle.So I decided that rather than paint her looking serious, I would show her smiling. When the queen smiles it’s like the sun coming out – she has a beautiful, animated, almost girlish smile, and it’s very infectious.

HM the Queen and HRH Duke of Edinburgh

Another memorable sitter was Margaret Thatcher, who I painted at her home in Belgravia, two years before she died. Throughout my childhood she was such a divisive character, but I have never met anyone with more of an aura. She spoke and moved in a very particular, deliberate, focused way – she’s quite different to other people. She was wearing her favourite dress, her classic pearl earrings and a bracelet that was given to her by (her husband) Denis. It was a very touching experience for me.

Short walk in the Hindu Kush

I first visited Afghanistan in 2009 with a charity called Turquoise Mountain Foundation. I’d just been through a painful divorce so I was feeling a bit reckless. I bought three horses, employed a guide and a translator, and set off on a 500-mile trek across the Hindu Kush. About halfway we stopped at a traditional mud longhouse, where 25 men were praying. My guide and translator – both Shia Muslims – realised immediately that these men were Taliban, and felt frightened. My instinctive reaction was to go straight to the front, kneel before the mullah and pray as a Christian. Afterwards, I asked my translator to politely request their hospitality. The mullah replied, “I can see from his actions that this is a man of great faith. So we will protect him.” My translator later said he was sure they would have chopped our heads off if we had behaved differently.

I returned three years later as a war artist, embedded with the British Army in Helmand province. My job was to engage with Afghan tribal and community leaders by sketching them. When the portraits were exhibited, the US forces commander said I was the first to succeed in getting the heads of warring factions gathered together in one place – because they’d all come to see their portraits.

The old warrior

Pointe Break

I’m currently producing a body of work from Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet. I’ve got exclusive access to paint the most talented dancers in the world. They’re a gift for an artist – they’re so beautiful, it makes me look good! I’m also doing a painting for the 130th anniver­sary of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. It’s top secret so I can’t tell you what it is – you’ll have to wait until it’s unveiled next spring.