Is it a help or a hindrance for an amateur painter to live amongst old Masters? Eat meals watched over by a life-size Romney, the portrait of one’s great-grandfather-in-law to boot?
Posted on Thu 06 Jun 2013
Relaxing in the drawing room under the eyes of half a dozen other famous ancestors’ portraits, including Topham Beauclerk – Dr. Johnson’s friend; and Charles II and Nell Gwynne ‘who started the family’?
Suzanne St. Albans in the dining room of her Chelsea house.
Right, the Duke of Monmouth. Left, Earl and Countess of Oxford. Both by Lely.
Suzanne, Duchess of St. Albans, whose home contains a collection of masterpieces, says ‘it’s a help if you keep calm and don’t despair; if you use the paintings for study’. She has spent hours scrutinising the lace in King Charles’s ruffle, the waves in a Thomas Whitcombe seascape, and the composition and brush strokes of a Tiepolo – which hangs half-way up the stairs.
‘But, you know, there are days when I feel like saying ‘What’s the use of my trying. If that’s called painting, what am I doing? I might as well give up.’ When you see the beauty, character and conception of an idea which can be conveyed on canvas ……’
But the moods of despair never last; painting has always been part of this Frenchwoman’s life, long before she ever dreamt of anything as living cheek by jowl with priceless paintings, and marrying a duke. She was born in Vence in the South of France, one of the most beautiful spots for painting anywhere in the world. ‘Renoir lived quite near, all the impressionists congregated in the area. Matisse had a house not far away. The light is so extraordinary there. Quite unlike anywhere else I believe. It’s delicate yet clear and strong, has a luminous quality which makes one feel one’s got to paint’
The landscapes, street scenes, houses and gardens which the Duchess now paints in this country probably owe their most translucent tones to the memories of Vence-light. ‘I’m a representational, academic painter. I paint only what I see, as I see it. But I think I see colours and light in a different way from born Londoners – although I adore the haze-grey English light as much now as the Vence-blue sky’.
Skating on the Serpentine
painted on the spot in very cold weather
The Duchess is small, casually elegant, unassuming and friendly. She frequently smiles as though she were sharing a private joke with herself. She says she is ‘from an ordinary middle-class French family’. But her life hasn’t been ordinary at all. In 1940, when she was 19, Suzanne Fesq, as she was then, escaped to England and was soon asked to work in the Foreign Office’s Political Intelligence Department.; when she was still in her early twenties she was sent to Italy and the Middle East ‘for quite interesting work’. Soon after the war, working in Austria, she met and married the 13th Duke of St. Albans, Hereditary Grand Falconer of England – and a colonel in the Intelligence Corps.
The Duke and Duchess now live in one of those narrow, elegant early 19th century terrace-houses in Chelsea. Two of their four children (17 to 21) are still at home, so there is no fair-sized room to spare as a proper studio.
‘But I wouldn’t want one anyway. I don’t need peace and quiet, or elaborate equipment. I painted all through the war, on and off, in the most unlikely places. I’m sure I could paint at a cocktail party. I haven’t tried but I’ve often been tempted to; you know – the challenge of capturing a scene with figures – some animated, some bored, and all the colours and the light reflecting in their glasses.’
The Drinking Bowl,
White doves on the terrace. In the gardens of Cheyne walk opposite was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's private 200
She doesn’t need a long stretch of time ahead of her to settle down to paint ‘I snatch the odd half hour; I feel quite strongly that when people say they’d like to paint but haven’t the time, what they mean is they don’t know how to use what time they have!’
She does her painting at home in one of two equally small, rather chaotic rooms; one is on the ground floor, leading out into the tiny garden. It has a washbasin and concealed strip-lighting – the only concessions to a painter’s needs. But it is also the family TV room and ‘if anyone wants to watch, they watch. Either I go on painting regardless, or I go up into the attic – where there’s no water but a north light. But in any case I paint out of doors whenever possible, in the garden, even when it’s cold, or into the park. That’s why I like to have very little and light equipment – I put everything in a plastic bag and off I go. When I did the Serpentine Snowscene, which took days and days of on-the-spot sketching in oils – I stuffed a hotwater bottle under my jersey and put on all the clothes I could lay my hands on. I must have looked rather like a tramp – in fact, a little boy ran up and gave me sixpence’.
Suzanne St. Albans certainly doesn’t believe in much ‘artist’s paraphernalia’. She keeps her oils in a battered cardboard chocolate-box, and never has very many tubes in use; ‘I find if I have the primary colours, and the earth-tones, the yellows and ochres and umbers, and of course white and turps. I’m able to to get all the shades I want.’ She has about a dozen in use at a time, all rather fine ones which she keeps in small soup tins. ‘I’m an extremely slow, careful worker; I can’t use thick brushes at all. I use a small plastic palette – light ad easy to carry and I prefer to paint on cardboard rather than on canvas; with expensive canvas I have to improve what I have done rather than start from scratch if I am not satisfied. With cardboard I feel much more relaxed – I’ll just chuck it away if I don’t like what I’ve done.’ She usually works on two or three paintings at once. ‘Which one I pick up depends on my mood, and often I get stuck, then I feel the solution will come to me tomorrow or next week. At the moment I’m working on finishing the Pier Hotel, and a pack of dogs. The Pier Hotel was right opposite our house – it is alas, pulled down now. For weeks I sat on the pavement outside the pub, hoping I’d get a fair amount done before the demolition workers started their work – fortunately I did. Now it will take me several weeks to finish the painting as truthfully as memory allows.
The pack of dogs is a scene I saw in a Camberley street – I could only make a quick sketch, unfortunately, but I think I can remember a lot of details. It was an old woman, a very humble one, surrounded by more than a dozen dogs, whom she obviously lived for.
Painted on a glass panel
Though most of Suzanne St. Albans’ work is in oils, she also does some watercolours, ‘as presents, and for book illustrations. ‘It’s much quicker and easier, it’s sheer relaxation, The book illustrations are for a children’s book I have written, a pure romantic fantasy. No publisher has seen it yet’. The illustrations depict delightfully fancied birds and animals, living in a wood and enjoying themselves. The conception is highly imaginative, in gay, riotous colours, totally different from the academic, representational style of her oils. It is as though she lets her creative mind’s eye have a go for the sheer joy of it, as a change from the serious business of oil painting.
The Duchess is probably more critical of her own work, and more serious about it than most amateurs for two reasons; because she knows the old Masters so intimately, and because for three years from about 1962 to 1965, she was a part-time student at the Slade. ‘It was a great honour to be allowed to join a class of young students taking a serious course. I had tried to join the Chelsea School of Art but they wouldn’t have me. Maybe my style wasn’t right for them, but I dare say it also helped’, she added disarmingly, ‘that I had advice about what to submit, from a teacher there who is a cousin of my husband’.
She says she learnt a phenomenal amount at the Slade – the first lessons she had ever had. ‘Above all I learnt how to discipline myself and my eyes and mind; I learnt not to paint with self-indulgence; to think very hard indeed about what I intended to achieve and how I intended to achieve it, before starting. And I learnt to see – to see shadows, shades, contours, light, and their relation to each other’.
She was impressed by the way her Slade teachers did not expect students to paint in their own, largely, Euston School-style; how objectively they criticised and helped, and how tactfully. ‘I remember one saying to me: ‘As I see it, there is rather too much purple in that cloud’.
The Slade lessons gave her confidence to paint landscapes, scenes with figures, houses. But she still hasn’t the confidence to paint portraits. Or maybe all those Romneys and Reynolds about the house are a little daunting. The only painting of a member of the family is a picture of her daughter walking out to sea …..
Nowadays the Duchess paints mainly in odd hours in the evenings, at weekends, and on frequent but short trips to her father who still lives in Vence. During the week she works very hard indeed: three years ago she opened her own gallery, the Upper Grosvenor Galleries in London’s West End. ‘I exhibit mainly contemporary representational academic artists work. Annigoni and Dame Laura Knight have exhibited with us. But I also like finding and exhibiting young unknowns.’
The End of the Pier Hotel
Painted while the Pier was being pulled down
Suzanne St. Albans is not aiming to have a one man exhibition of her work. ‘I paint merely because I love doing so. I’m not, and never will be, a professional.’ Naturally enough though, she is extremely proud of having had two paintings accepted by the Royal Academy last year.
This interview with the Duchess of St. Albans is taken from the summer 1968 issue of Leisure Painter
This issue also featured:
Rowland Hilder's choice of painting country
Revisiting Stanley Spencer's earthly paradise
Painting in polymer
Painting a portrait head - step-by-step
The art of painting flowers
Experiment in oil technique
Staging a group exhibition
The Dowager Duchess of St. Albans died in February 2010, aged 88
Read more about her life in thisTelegraph obituary