Creativity: a royal artist's perspective

Michael Noakes is an English artist and portrait painter. During his eminent career he has been president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, chairman of the Contemporary Portrait Society and governor of the Federation of British Artists. He is a Freeman of the City of London and has painted actors, writers and the Royal Family. Here he gives a personal perspective on creativity.

Royal Painter Michael Noakes gives a personal perspective on creativity
Royal Painter Michael Noakes gives a personal perspective on creativity

Earning my living as a painter, having brought up a family that way, delights me. That happens to maybe a score-few at most.

Although I enjoy good abstract pictures, I always wanted to be a figurative painter: the actual situation in front of me can move me. I don’t copy it, but I explore the thing seen. Figurative art is sometimes sneered at by commentators on painting.

This means that I have never been in fashion, though I am in demand, having a list of commissions stretching ahead for as long as I would want it.

The Queen didn’t seem annoyed that I had rather taken control of the situation, but when two minutes later there was yet another knock at the door, I really exploded

I spend most of my time on portraiture. Not necessarily painting famous people, because many ordinary folk sit for portraits too. I do work on landscape also, but my timetable is really filled with people: and portraits are far more difficult than landscape painting.

Since everyone is different in character and personality, I am never bored with commissions. I find them difficult though, really quite often starting again because I think I can do better.

Rich lay-people, anxious to show that they are modern in outlook, sometimes pay colossal sums for celebrated pictures. I think that perhaps they are too easily pleased. Hearing of a hundred million being paid for a famous painter’s work is unsettling: but an aircraft carrier costs much the same, so there is poetic justice here.

I would regret it if a garden fence collapses, but all the same be moved to paint that accelerating swirl as it settles, noting a rhythm picking up in the tree-branches behind and in the line of hills beyond. Painting it, one opens laypeople’s eyes to the design dormant there.

Painting the Queen 

Rembrandt produced a wonderful picture of a flayed ox. He didn’t expect to exhibit the ox, just his picture of it: nor would he have shown a pickled shark.

Van Gogh painted his bedroom. Now, they display a bed itself. There is a link here, so there is a related situation: but a vital element, the artist’s painting, has gone.

Much emphasis is now on images produced by machines. They can of course be seductive, with wonderful colour and rhythm – but there is no real exploration, and they are easily done.

"Oh, for goodness’ sake" I said, throwing my brushes down dramatically on the palette, "who is it?"

My most challenging undertaking, up to then, was in 1972 when I was commissioned to paint seven members of the royal family, with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of London, holding separate sittings in six places. Tricky!

I had to measure everyone involved for height and eye and shoulder levels, making individual studies so I could work with stand-ins to relate them rightly in space.

Normally, when one paints the Queen, a bottle of Malvern Still Mineral Water and two glasses on a silver tray are in the Yellow Drawing Room, ready beforehand.

Once, they were not there. "Curses!" I thought, but the Queen came in and the session started. Sittings are never normally interrupted; so when there was a tap at the door, I was cross.

Forgetting that it was not my palace, I called out irritated, "Oh, come in!" A servant with the tray and glasses and the mineral water entered, and I told him to put them on a table.

The Queen didn’t seem annoyed that I had rather taken control of the situation, but when two minutes later there was yet another knock at the door, I really exploded.

"Oh, for goodness’ sake" I said, throwing my brushes down dramatically on the palette, "who is it?"

The door opened, and looking very apologetic the intruder said, "Look, I’m awfully sorry, but could I just have a word with the Queen please?" It was the Prince Of Wales.