Artist Susannah Fiennes, who recorded the Hong Kong handover, proves that royal patronage is alive and well, says Martin Gayford
London, 24 June 1998
Journalist Martin Gayford
A man in a blue shirt leans on the rail of a boat, gazing at the setting sun. It could be anyone, on any vessel. In fact, the man is Chris Patten, the ship the royal yacht, sailing towards Manila, two days after the handover of Hong Kong. it would have made a wonderful subject for a Victoria painter, “The Last Governor of Hong Kong Contemplates the Setting of the Imperial Sun”. In fact, it has been painted in an immediate, informal manner, by a contemporary artist, Susannah Fiennes.
She was there and saw Patten in just that posture. “The image that most endured for me, in terms of that whole trip, was of Chris Patten. it was a beautiful evening, we were right out at sea. Everyone was playing tennis on the deck. And he was just leaning on the railing, looking back. It was very poignant.”
The painting will be included in the exhibition China and Hong Kong, which open on Monday at Rafael Valls’ gallery (6 Ryder Street, London SW1 until July 11).
Fiennes, who is in her thirties, has not only dealt with an old-fashioned subject in an updated style, she has also been the recipient of a reinvented version of a venerable thing: royal patronage. Twice she has been invited by the Prince of Wales to accompany him on journeys abroad – to Oman in 1995 and to Hong Kong last year.
She was the successor of her friend Emma Sergeant in an intermittent post which might be dubbed “Royal Artist Extraordinary on Foreign Expeditions”. It is a way of working, as Fiennes explains, that has its own advantages and pitfalls. Modern political trips take place at a blistering pace, while painting is often practised at a more tranquil meditative rate – especially for a Slade-trained artist, brought up on the idea that a single painting might take a year to complete.
“There was a lot of pressure on the Hong Kong trip,” she says. “There were a lot of things happening, and you had to be there at a certain time, and rush about. Then it rained a lot. I did a whole series of umbrellas in the rain during the ceremonies.”
On the journey to Oman, she ended up working in a helicopter, a departure from the tradition in which she was taught, in which the model would return day after day to chalk-marks on the studio floor. “If I’d thought back at the Slade that I’d end up doing that sort of thing,” she reflects, “I’d have been amazed.” But she welcomes the challenge. “It was a matter of getting out there and being vivid and immediate, and that was an exciting way of working.”
Of course, the other painter on the expedition – Prince Charles – wasn’t able to work in such an off-the-cuff fashion. (There might be a diplomatic incident if he were to set up his easel in the marketplace and paint watercolours of the locals.) His painting opportunities have to be snatched where the schedule allows. “That’s just the nature of his life. We had two days there which were a private trip for him, and he was visiting some friends. They took us into the mountains and even then his allotted painting time was scheduled.”
On one occasion, however, they painted side by side – or rather, as she remembers, at a discreet distance, Prince Charles coming over to observe a particularly interesting effect being executed. On the Hong Kong mission, his painting time was restricted to a spot of water-colouring at sea. “While we were larking about on deck, he was painting down below, doing something of the sunset and the back of the boat. That was his only moment of peace really.”
To some extent, Fiennes had been prepared for her role as royal artist on the hoof by a previous trip to China – where she went as winner of the Travel Award from the BP Portrait exhibition in 1993. It was there that she first loosened her approach.
“It was a really big turning point. It was the first time I’d worked on the move, so to speak, literally sitting on the streets, with watercolours and working very quickly, under pressure with a lot of people watching. It was exactly what I needed to let go of all the intellectual stuff and trust to intuition. So suddenly I found a certain sort of freedom.”
Her Chinese paintings – which included a number of bicyclist flashing by, now an “obsessive subject” – make up the rest of the new exhibition.
The explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is her second cousin, so perhaps travel is in the blood (she is the daughter of Lord and Lady Saye and Sele), certainly she seems to incline towards exotic subject-matter. But she is also keen to point out that English subject-matter can be just as compelling. Another series of paintings yet to be exhibited focuses on Blackpool – “a wonderfully medieval place,” she says.
And, as her prize from the BP Portrait Award might suggest, she is also a portrait specialist. One eminent subject who recently came her way was Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. “We met in Hong Kong and I said that I’d love to do a picture because he’s got such an interesting face.” Interesting features are what attract her to a sitter; she was similarly drawn to sketch a Chinese cabbage-seller. There wasn’t a chance for a sitting in Hong Kong, although Cook “was very enthusiastic about it. When I got back I rang him up , and his secretary organised it.”
The sitting, however, was at a meeting with 10 or so other people around a table discussing Bangladesh, so she only managed to do some drawings. “I’d like to do more,” she says.