I'm an artist. I'm that guy who as a child had his head in the clouds. Concentration was staggered and allocated to when I was only interested in something. I suppose for the most that is most people. My paternal grandfather would say "He's all over the place" that rings true to this very day. But there was one thing, that one thing that captured my attention more than anything, and that was people. Their every movement thought and pattern of their being I was interested in. That was then and that rings true to this very day.
Pictures were excavated from family archives and stories about royalty seemed to always pop up at family gatherings "Sonny would be interested in this". I would share the stories and the most comment was "The British Royal Family? Suuuure!".
Years pass and I find myself at my ancestral family country of Guernsey, Channel Islands. That wee country steeped in amazing history just off the coast of France but greatly loyal to the Crown. There I met a librarian, today a great friend Mandy, who helped sort out my family history. The revelations were most riveting and she confirmed some of the stories as true and correct. The Corbet's did have royal connection. I was left amazed!
Naturally I found myself interested in the Royals, the role models for which they stood for and of course their unique lifestyle. Then came out some photos I had never seen before. King George Queen Mary and the Princess Royal in a series of 1921 photos visiting no other than our family vineries. What I also found interesting about this was that Queen Mary always appeared to be taking the lead over her partner the King! I also found out this visit to our family estate was requested by the King himself. Very cool!
Forward a decade or so and we're in 1989. I meet HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on what was the 50th anniversary of her first visit to Canada. A great pleasure it was to shake her hand and have a few words, the next day my photo appeared on the front page along with hers. My family and friends were properly impressed. The Queen Mum emitted a kindness and energy I will never forget and what was thrilling was the fact the Queen Mum remembered the Corbet name from all those years my family supplied fruits and flowers to Buckingham Palace.
In 1995 I painted a portrait of The Queen Mum for her 95th birthday and I was invited to present it to Clarence House, her home in London. The presentation went splendidly and following that I received a tour of the house and all the amazing art work that was in it. I even made the grand error to kick over one of her Corgi's water bowls. How embarrassing! My cousins joked while leaving Clarence House "Next is the big house, Buckingham Palace." To be honest I could see myself going in there one day!
The Royal Canadian Regiment
Nearly two decades pass and I receive a phone call from a gentleman by the name of Col. Joe Aitcheson, who asks me if I am interested in creating a portrait of The Royal Canadian Regiment's Colonel in Chief, this was of course my introduction to Prince Philip and his unique and long standing roll as their patron. "We would really like to have a portrait done of The Duke of Edinburgh. Is this something you may be interested in?" "Absolutely" I replied. Why wouldn't I? I had just one request "Can I get a life sitting?" I explained the reasoning and the Colonel asked for me to leave it with him for a few days. He rang me up a day or so later indicating that Prince Philip would need to see examples of my work of which I obliged. But which ones do I send? Buckingham Palace requested only two images and I hoped for the best. Off they went via electronic delivery and later that evening the good Colonel rang me up. "I'm sitting here celebrating with a drink in my hand. Check your email" he said. I opened my email and there it was an email stating that Prince Philip had approved my work! Incidentally a fax came through later which had images of my sculptures the RCR sent to Prince Philip and below one was his "DoE" signature on one. Thrilling!
Working with Col. Joe of The Royal Canadian Regiment was as wonderful as it has been working with the Royal Canadian Navy; most respectful they all are of this artists' artistic license. I led the way for the most in how I work and that meant a maquette of a small model to get a feel of the subject but the subject wasn't there for me to interview and commence drawings from. Typically I commence every new subject by researching as much of the person as I can and wow! Did I ever have a lot of material to read on the worlds most photographed man. Books and clippings and an array of phone calls came in from people who have either written about the royal consort or who even met him. I was building the largest dossier of any subject I ever had; second largest was that of Dr. Jane Goodall. In no time I was getting a feel of how I wished to depict him and the only other request the RCR had was to show their Colonel-in-Chief wearing his tunic.
The original concept was to show a double life size head and shoulders but the sheer size was an issue. Cast in bronze it would have weighed far too much to ship around so we settled on a double life size head and collar which what, as Prince Philip said "...is a bit more interesting than my tunic." The maquette though including the bust and all those medals was a real challenge to sculpt but an amazing experience; attention to detail was paramount. Within little time the maquette was complete as was a series of exceptionally light renderings from the many photos friends sent to me so I could get a feel of my new subject. To this very day I can still feel the energy of those where were in the know about this commission and the excitement they felt. I am grateful to them for all their kind help.
Come the late winter of 2013 arrangements had been settled and I was heading to London. All I needed for this first sitting was a sketchbook, my camera and most importantly my maquette, the latter being about 5" in height and made of plastalina, a material much like plasticine. A harrowing if not hilarious set of occurrences took place the evening before the first sitting. As I prepared and did a check of materials to ensure all was accounted for and set to fly for the 9AM meeting I realized I have left my newest Armani dress suits back in Canada. Ouff! What was I to do? The only thing to remedy this situation was to buy a new one and at such a late hour seemed impossible. I scoured the streets on London an doors were locked shut-closed. I came cross one shop who had an employee working late, furiously rapped on the door and pleaded my case (which I am sure he didn't fully believe at first). the gentleman went off to Google me and found I was authentically me and he let me in. Thank goodness!
The fitting was fast paced, prefect in fact and he was very obligatory but then the news came that he didn't tailor suits. The tailor had left for the day and was back out of the city home eating dinner. Yet again another plea was made and a hefty bribe which brought the tailor on the tube and back to work. The suit was ready within a few hours and my anxiety lowered considerably. Phew!
So if you think that was the last occurrence to challenge me think again. All this running around left me hungry so I stopped for some curry, a favourite vegan meal of mine. Nom, nom, it was great and did the job. Remedied! Wait!, not so soon. Forward another two hours or so and it was 1AM and then came the reach for Imodium, I thought "I am dying!" The cramps came and went and then came and stayed. I found I had spent more time sitting down than laying down resting for my big day which was a few mere hours away. time was ticking away. A couple of Imodiums later and I seemed pulled together but ever so tired; exhausted would be the best word really. 7AM rolled around and up I was readying for my car, coming from Buckingham Palace all for me; imagine!
Passed the Gates
My ride came from BP and I arrived at the gates at the slated time of 08:30. What a unreal feeling it was to slip by the early morning tourists and enter the gates. Many onlookers took photos and some asked who I was, that was fun.
Security was far more restricted than I had ever seen it before and a guard, complete with a sub machine gun, creeped up beside me. So long as it wasn't pointing at me I was fine!
Once in the Privy Purse Doors I was met with great formality and kindness. I was given a visitors tag and sat down in the Canada Room, a small comfortable space adorned with, of course, a large Canadian painting by the great Canadian painter Lucius O'Brien. In fact, I believe, this was one the paintings that Princess Louise and her partner the Marquis of Lorne presented to Queen Victoria when he was made Canada's first Governor General. I sat for a few moments and then heard some concerned voices in the lobby then one of the ushers came back to me and asked me for the visitors tag back. Was I heading home already? I handed it over and he said "HRH doesn't wish for you to wear one of these tags." "Phew" I thought, then smiled and sat back down onto the settee. Soon Dale, Equerry to Prince Philip arrived, introduced himself and ushered me through an amazing longish walk through the corridors of the palace. One space that I found absolutely adorable was a round lobby with steps down and a door leading outside but in the space were three neatly arranged dog beds and doggies. '"s this where the Queen's corgis reside?" and indeed it was, one of the spaces they are readied for walkies. Next to each bed stood a free standing plinth where their leads would hang. The corgis were out for a walk and I missed seeing them. "Maybe next time?" Dale assured me.
A meeting in Dale's office led to a fun conversation where I was suggested how to hold myself. He suggested "The Duke doesn't like vapid talk. If you mention the weather like "I see it's raining out." he said "Don't be surprised if he says to you "Of course it's fucking raining it's London". I laughed and assured Dale "I'm familiar with swearing, my grandfather was in the Tank Corps." I must admit, however, the massive filing cabinet in the Equerry's office made me think. So big it was that I was advised that the files went down to the basement and came back up, alphabetically of course. He pulled my file and explained how extensive the files were, of course they are, "There's a file on everyone who has ever had private engagements with the Royals and now we have a file on you!" he laughed. I looked at him and said "Good!"
Soon I was taken to what was referred to as "The Duke's private office." which to me resembled more of an intellectual man's cave. There I was positioned to stand in a certain space and to bow if I wanted and to shake hands if the Prince extended his. There was no knowing what my subject was going to be wearing and I was advised it could be anything from a suite to lounge wear. I was then advised as to the most favourite seats for which the Prince was comfortable to sit. "Here on the sofa and this side chair." both were mid century furniture, Eames perhaps and quite warn. I brought out my miniature maquette or model of the proposed bust to show the Prince and placed it on the coffee table. The maquette is made of a plastalina material, a sort of non hardening clay it is susceptible to being easily marked. Then I waited. Soon I hear a slight rumbling in an adjoining room and there he was THE Prince., Her Majesty's husband and a man known for his world famous gaffs! He was introduced to me and we shook hands. the Prince looked over and saw the maquette and walked over and picked it up by the head to quickly put it down again "OH it's still wet!" Now I had the Prince's fingerprints on the sculpture, I was fine with that.
The Prince Philip then turned to me to say "I've been reading the novel you wrote." "Novel, Sir?" he laughed and said "Your CV, it's extensive. You've been very busy. That's good." he went on to add a few more comments but will save that for my memoirs.
"Where would you like for me to sit?" he asked "Well, Sir, anywhere you feel comfortable." "You choose." he said so I gestured to the singular seat and not the sofa that was also suggested ."Oh THAT chair. You would pick the most uncomfortable chair in the room wouldn't you." I nearly died. You see, he thought I gestured over and above the yellow arm chair to his curule chair, a more portable chair, commonly used for on location events, a bit like an small ancient throne chair. He went over and pulled out the chair and sat down. He was ever so respectable as to the needs of an artist and I appreciated that. That isn't really anything common in Canada.
With materials set up I explained my process and had an hour in the first sitting. Photographs, drawings then sculpture. The Prince looked over and saw my maquette propped rather low "You can't possibly sculpt that low down." I assured him I was ok "Come, here let's place a book or two under it." he proceeded to walk past me and suggest some thick books to help elevate it. He pulled down three of which were huge and heavy, passed one to me and suggested I read it one day. It was a book on architecture, a specific architect, he admired and from then on our conversation flowed brilliantly.
I commenced with photos, over 340, both posed and candid and at one point I was circling around him and ended up on the floor "You keep spinning around and you'll end up under my desk." he laughed. He talked about the portrait I was going to do as being the last sculpture of him "You might wish to hurry it up I may not be around for long." The thought had crossed my mind and I kept up a hearty pace.
The day before this sitting marked Prince Philip as the longest serving Royal Consort in British history. Though I was suggested not to give compliments at any level this occasion, to me, warranted it. I spouted out a few soft words mentioned his milestone then...silence...absolute silence. I put my head down thinking "I've done myself in now." Then, as I looked up, he looked at me with and said "It seems as though you've done as much research on me as WE have on you." This made me pause for a moment, who knows what look I gave, and we both laughed. Phew! I narrowly passed that one.
Awkwardness can happen during any first meeting and this time was no exception. "Back to your career" he said "Your parents must be very proud of you." This is the awkward part, "Well, no Sir. My grandparents were though. My parents were quite absent from my life, a lot of attention paid to my mother, her mental health wasn't the greatest." The Prince settled back in his chair, I saw a few fingers wiggle. I thought to myself "Best to end it here." Then he firmly said "Well those who matter care, you've done well." I thanked him. He carried on to make me feel more comfortable. His insight educational.
With sketchbook in hand I scribbled out a few real notes. I call then that for its all real time and emotion. A static photo, for me, cant convey what one sees and feels over the span of a few seconds or minutes. That one on one moment when you see a twitch of the body, a scratch, a movement that perhaps they were barely aware of; I am not. I remember looking at his ears, the folds and the wiry hairs untrimmed and near unruly. Of course they do. His fingers, long and thick clasping the arms of the wooden chair and the Prince asking "Shall I move the chair a bit?" I believed he was okay but then, out of nowhere he jumped the chair around in a few positions , left, right back and forth, lifting himself and the chair up and off the ground a few inches. He was not only adjusting his seating position but he was also showing his prowess, his agility and his strength. He was 92 and this impressed me. At me at 47 this impressed me even more!
Age was discussed but not me with him rather he with me. At one point he asked how old I was again. I replied "47 Sir" to which he replied "You don't look it. People pay to look young you know." I attested to the fact I must have some of my grandma-ma's genes of which I am always proud to state and for many a reason. I then asked the Prince if still painted and he said "No". He said his paints were in the basement somewhere. He went on to discuss his friendship with painter Edward Seago and how once he invited Seago onboard the Royal Britannia for a time to paint. "at the end of the trip Seago called for me to look at the paintings he did; they were scattered all over the deck. brilliant works. I asked him if I might have one please and Seago told me "You can have them all. "I was pleasantly surprised." The Prince admitted that it was Edward Seago who taught him the most in painting. The Prince then asked me if I still paint. "Not as much as I used to." "Well" he advised "you don't want to give that up. Sculpture is a hard sell in Canada." He was right, very right. I have since heeded his sage advice and am grateful for his recommendation.
"There's a bust here I'd like for you to see." the Prince pointing over to a corner of his den. His fleshy aged finger still pointed to the corner and he turned to me and said "Who took my fucking bust?". Apparently he had a bust he wished for me to see and it was nowhere in site. He shot up from his chair and went directly into the hall looking for help, popping back in and looking at me saying "Where is everybody?" I stood up and moved toward the door where he disappeared yet again then returned back again. A strange face come into the room, a staff member "How can I help Sir?" The Prince looking to him, saying a bust was missing from the corner of his room and he described it as one of him done decades ago. The staff member points to behind the Prince "Sir, is that it there?" I look over and up as did the Prince "That's not me that's Roman figure! Do I look like that?". Immediately the staff was released and the Prince tells me to follow him. We travelled up the hall whilst he looked for the bust. He was clearly frustrated but took the time to show me other sculptures and paintings that he favoured. I do like figurative works. Do you like Lucien Freud's portrait of those women" Did you see the awful portrait of Her Majesty The Queen he did? Bloody awful." I had to agree on all accounts.
Passing by a large bowl of nuts the Prince asked "Would you like some?' me remembering my tummy was a circus only a few hours before I declined but, and in such a grandfatherly way, he reached in and grabbed a handful gesturing me to open my pockets and then dropped them in. It felt like time with an old friend. After not having located the bust we returned shortly after for me to work on the small maquette and to me finishing up soon after.
The last few minutes involved conversation about the Prince's uncle Lord Mountbatten. The Prince knew of my portrait of his cousin the Countess Mountbatten of Burma and lauded me for securing such a fine subject. "We grew up together you know." I was amazed at how much he knew of me and let me know by sharing it. He was sharp!
After hundreds of photographs, pages of sketches a drawing and work on the maquette as well as a medallion I realized I was done. Looking at my watch I had minutes left and said "Sir, I believe I am finished now." he looked at me for a second turned to his mantle clock and his wrist watch watch and said "But you've that still got 15 more minutes of me!" he was properly shocked at my statement. I looked over and said "Sir, I am not here to waste your time or that of anyone else. I am done for today." he chuckled and replied "Well, now what am I do do for the rest of my day? Fair enough then. I will see you again next week." he leaned forward to shake my hand and right then and there I was even more attuned to the fact that I was in the company of history. Prince Philip left the room, his Equerry arrived back to escort me back through the halls and as we walked away and a recent familiar voice came echoing down the halls. "Be sure to take Mr. Corbet down the other staircase and show him those paintings and sculptures." the Prince said. "His family knew King George and Queen Mary". I replied boldly "Please, Sir, call me Christian you're my friend now." He stopped and stared deeply and then he laughed and vanished into the dimly lit hallway.
As we took the elevator down in Buckingham Palace I thought time and time again,
I am blessed.
To Be Continued
The artist as a child. 1968
Dad, son and Mum, Beach House. 1967
The Corbet's host King George V, Queen Mary and the Princess Royal. 1921
Maquette of proposed portrait bust of HRH The Prince Philip. The head and tunic was roughed in prior to my first sitting at Buckingham Palace. I needed to request to see the real thing with medals to complete the model which his staff kindly brought to me.
With maquette in hand (see small yellow and black bag in my hand) I show my pass information into Buckingham Palace. Onlookers were curious as yo who I was!
"I'd wake up daily in London and there the Duke of Edinburgh was staring at me telling me to "Get to work!" Christian Corbet
"There were times I would look up and he was giving me a long hard stare. Then suddenly a twinkle would come across his eyes and we'd laugh without saying a word. I knew then we were friends." Christian Corbet
"Come other sittings the space became grander and the bust seemingly shrunk in size! "