One artist’s fateful path begins with a fall that leaves him in silence but ends with the colour and beauty of a Rembrandt.
What eventually guided Richard Stone, the royal painter, up a ladder, started with a fall that would have crushed the spirit of most.
“Could the Queen Mother sit for her portrait?” asked the young artist, wading somewhere in the waters between confidence and delusion. With a politeness that could only have been polished over decades of service, the chamberlain replied, “While I hear your request, Her Majesty cannot sit for any Tom, Dick or Harry who telephones to ask for sittings.”
Fearing neither past nor future, the artist seized the moment. “Sir, you haven’t seen my work — I could be a latter-day Rembrandt.” Silence.
As the painter’s heart pumped, the chamberlain paused. “You’re correct, sir,” says the chamberlain, cracking the stillness. “Why don’t you bring a few examples to my office next week, and I will at least have a look at them.”
The 22-year-old painter, Richard Stone, obliged, and, a short time later, became Britain’s youngest royal portrait painter in 200 years, painting his first of seven portraits of the Queen Mother, along with many of her relatives.
“The Queen Mother was a fascinating company — she loved the arts,” says Stone, 25 years later. “She was a tremendous storyteller. So I would have my sittings filled with her stories about the artists that she’d known. To me, it was heaven. I mean, it was absolute heaven.”
What eventually guided the royal painter up a ladder to cloud nine started with a fall that would have crushed the dreams and spirit of most.
On Boxing Day, behind his mother, a 4-year-old Stone ascended the stairs for bed, wearing Santa’s only gift to him, a modest pair of slippers.
“I suppose in my eagerness to get off to bed after another exciting day of Christmas, I failed to do up the little straps,” Stone says. “Partway up the steps, I realized I had left Teddy behind and said to my mother, ‘I’m going to get Teddy.’ Well, as I turned, I happened to step on one of the straps of the opposite slipper. I lost my balance and fell down the stairs.”
The young boy tumbled down and smashed his head on the stone floor, fracturing his skull. For three months, he didn’t wake up.
“My parents were gently prepared by the hospital staff for me to be severely brain damaged,” says Stone. “As it happened, when I withdrew from my coma, people were relieved to find that I wasn’t brain damaged. But I was acutely deaf. In fact, I couldn’t hear anything. I was living in silence.”
Months later, after the young Stone regained his strength, he returned to his old school, only to be greeted by a new life.
“My head was in a protective helmet. I really was a sad sort of figure no one wanted to play with,” he says with a laugh, hinting that a lifetime of achievement can ease any memory. “To start, I couldn’t hear what people were saying. And I was, of course, unteachable because I couldn’t hear the teachers.”
To busy this seemingly hopeless student, the teachers gave the young child sheets of paper, crayons and paints, and he took to this new hobby like his life depended on it.
“While I saw my existence as being very isolated, I was resourceful enough to paint and draw all that I saw,” he says. “It’s not as though I deliberately set out to master the craft of drawing and painting. I just couldn’t help myself doing it.”
“Art Was My Only Means of Trying to Communicate”
Stone’s drawing and painting could be described in many respects as an escape, a passion, possibly even a calling — a concept hard to argue, in retrospect. But, above all, his art brushed him with a touch of humanity, adapting him, in some ways, far better to life than those who are subject to its noise.
“I wanted desperately to communicate,” he recalls. “After my accident, art was my only means of trying to communicate, of trying to come to terms with life. Not that I am looking for sympathy, because I actually wasn’t sorry for myself at all. I absolutely enjoyed every single day of being able to draw and observe all that I saw around me. But in order to make sense of people trying to talk to me, I would look very intently at their expressions.”
It’s almost as if certain skills Stone would need later on, sitting down in front of members of the royal family, were being forced upon him for survival, as if fate was directing the promising prodigy’s play of life.
“You can see here that the formation of my understanding of the human face began, and how it was practically inevitable that if I had this passion for art, then I would be interested in people. Ever since those very early years at school, when I was drawing people’s faces, there was no question I wanted to be a portrait painter.”
Stone’s childhood odyssey would further unfold, as essential development didn’t end with acute attention to the human visage. Though limited in resources (his father was the village postman), “my parents were very good parents as they went to great lengths to take me to specialists and consultants to restore my hearing,” he says, smiling, touched, their efforts not for naught, as he regained hearing in his left ear four years later. “It was completely life-changing to be able to hear sound again.”
Now that the 8-year-old regained some hearing, which even to this day isn’t perfect, he was sent to a deaf clinic to learn how to speak and pronounce words again.
“My family speaks with a very regional accent,” he explains with his typical sophisticated parlance. “But my pronunciation would have to be much more precise to make myself understood, so my accent quickly developed into what one would call a middle class accent, and not the working class accent of my family.”
Later on, as he became known for a party trick spontaneously sketching socialites, “I would be invited to some rather smart houses,” he says. “Because I could speak nicely and was able to draw and amuse, it brought me into a social circle that I doubt I would ever have been invited into if I hadn’t sustained that accident.”
At the age of 9, apparently the exuberant student was ready, as his first mentor appeared — Frederick Heron, his neighbor and “an extremely talented amateur painter,” according to Stone. So the primary school student began taking weekly lessons filled with the basics, such as still-life paintings and portraits of Mrs. Heron. But the teacher was far more than one.
“He would talk to me about art,” says Stone. “He would show me his wonderful collection of art books. My family was pretty humble. We didn’t have any books nor pictures in the house. It was very exciting for me to get to know him.”
Not only did Heron’s support and friendship transform the talented yet solitary child, a birthday gift one year would become a bridge to a brave new world.
“As a treat on my 14th birthday, he took me to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London,” says Stone. “It was a hugely exciting day, because I was able to see hundreds of pictures painted by the country’s leading professionals. But what I wasn’t prepared for was to see a portrait painted by Sir Gerald Kelly,” the former president of the Royal Academy, whose prolific portfolio boasted portraits of King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth.
“I’d obviously been made aware of the great portraits of Rembrandt, van Dyck, Holbein and the great masters of the past,” says Stone. “But to actually see a work painted by a living artist, I was absolutely stunned by this portrait. Here was a portrait of a man who was so alive that he was almost able to step out of the canvas and shake you by the hand.”
After the exhibition, Stone quickly penned a letter to his new idol, scribing, “Sir Gerald, I think you’re the greatest painter since Rembrandt.” Stone laughs, amused by his own gushing teenage enthusiasm. He wrote, “I, too, wish to become a portrait painter. Would you look at my work and perhaps give me a few tips?”
The reply came as expediently as the request. The mid-80-year-old answered, “Thank you very much for your compliments. Please bring as much work as you can to my studio, and I will do my best to dissuade you from embarking upon such a dangerous course.”
With his best canvases and drawings in hand, the teenager set off for London. The wise maestro — a knight among painters and friend to the royal family — scrutinized the eager student’s art, volunteering his heartfelt advice.
“Lots of enthusiasm, Mr. Stone, but I’m afraid not much talent,” he said, a decade of drawing and dreams crushed with one knight’s blow.
“I am acutely embarrassed,” says Stone. “As quickly as I could, I stuffed my artwork back into the portfolio, apologizing profusely for wasting his time.”
But Sir Gerald Kelly wasn’t finished. “You know, when I was your age, I was as keen about becoming an artist as I sense you are,” he says. “Come to the studio, and I will show you something that I think will be of some interest.”
As quickly as the impressionable youth’s heart had plummeted, his spirits now arose. In their first studio meeting, the mentor sent the student to a dark recess of the room, had him reach into a drawer and pick up a hardened lump of clay, about an inch and a half in length, molded into a hand.
The First Art Lesson
“Describe the hand that you’re looking at,” said the teacher.
“That’s a laborer. It must be a man, middle aged, obviously, a very strong person because you’ve got the strength of muscle and the grip seems to be very firm,” replied the student.
“Marvelous,” said Kelly. “This is your first art lesson — you’re holding this little hand made from clay, and you’re able to tell me so much about the personality of the person you cannot see.”
“I’m thinking, wow!” says Stone. “The hairs on my neck are standing. It’s so exciting.”
So began an unbreakable bond of both teacher and student that each would cherish in his own way. Lessons were filled with as many invaluable trade secrets as stories — heard as legend by the wide-eyed teen — about Kelly’s time with Monet, Cézanne, and, of course, the Queen Mother.
“I was a handshake away from these extraordinary people — I was hanging onto his every word,” says Stone. “He had become such an influential friend; he’d become a real mentor. He’d opened my eyes to a number of pictures from his personal collection of artists whose work I had never come across. But I was able to learn from him why he valued these particular pictures, so I’m learning a fast-track way of empathy and understanding for one’s sitter.”
Stone saw Kelly quite frequently over the last four years of Kelly’s life. Before the nobleman passed, he gave the wunderkind one last piece of advice. “I now see that you have the makings of a portrait painter. Just because I think that your work is good, I can tell you now, the world will not come flocking to your studio. You will have to go and knock on doors.”
Test and Reward
The first door Stone rapped on belonged to Sir Arthur Bliss, the court composer and master of the Queen’s music.
Sir Arthur told Stone, “I’ve had some awful portraits painted, so I’m going to give you this challenge. I’ll sit for you for 40 minutes, and if after 40 minutes, when I look at your drawing, I like it, I will give you a commission.”
Stone chatted with the royal composer about music while sketching, looking for an expression, an authenticity. Sir Arthur took one glance at the budding creative’s work and gave Stone a commission of 500 pounds.
“Now, this is 1969,” says the royal portrait painter. “That was more money than I could ever imagine to have earned in a year. It was hugely flattering that Sir Arthur was investing so much in me. It was a tremendous confidence boost.”
The invisible elements of Stone’s craft — fertilized first when his hearing ended, then blossoming as mentors watered his deep-seeded gifts — cultivated an intimacy between subject and painter, creation and creator that surprised even Stone himself.
“I allow them to become themselves,” he says. “Because the portrait has to be much more than just a superficial likeness. It needs to capture something of that inner spirit. Some people aren’t prepared to share that. It’s capturing the private face behind the public mask. It’s a hugely privileged position to be in when that actually develops. But of course, there’s the dilemma for me, because if I paint the private face, would people still recognize the public figure?”
For one sitter, the unveiling of the masked man was so powerful, the memory still touches the artist to this day.
Just before Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, the iconic figure sat with Stone six times at his office in Johannesburg.
“As the sittings developed, I was able to move closer to him and look into his face, and look into his eyes,” says Stone. “You have to be aware of how delicate and sensitive that situation is because none of us would have had the experience where someone is looking intently at you and no one else.”
“I want to establish trust so that they are not disconcerted with me looking deep into their eyes trying to capture the spirit in a person. It’s something that can’t be contrived. But with Nelson Mandela’s eyes, there was something so extraordinary about them. You obviously got the strength of the man. It’s inevitable the years of pain were registered there. He is remarkable insofar as he is the one person, who when studying his face, I found that his life’s experience was, in fact, etched into his features.”
When Stone gives public talks, he often includes a slide of just Mandela’s eyes from the portrait. He doesn’t reveal who it is, but often enough, it’s clear to all.
“Mr. Mandela trusted me enough to talk candidly about his extraordinary life, especially of his years of imprisonment and his family. He opened his heart to me. It’s even quite emotional recalling this, but he trusted me and allowed me to look through that window into his soul.”
For the brief time I got to listen to Mr. Stone — of course, he humbly insisted I call him Richard — and in my experience writing, trying to capture his character, knowing full well that my words on paper can’t do justice to his works on canvas — in a way, I wonder if he gives himself enough credit. When I look at his portraits, I see not only the soul of the sitter, but I see and feel a true nobleman’s spirit, that of the painter.