'I Painted Prince Philip—He Was Nothing Like His Public Persona'

My portrait of Prince Philip came about in a slightly tangential way. A charity, Muscular Dystrophy UK, approached me about it and I was selected from several artists they put forward. In retrospect, I can see that Philip's interest in painting might have had something to do with it, but it's equally possible I could also simply have been chosen at random!

I was quite surprised since I wasn't someone who had followed the royal family particularly closely, but by 2006 I had become known for painting portraits, and, in my mind anyway, was an edgy, contemporary portraitist.

At that time, Prince Philip had begun to be seen in a slightly caricatured way, and I felt some recent paintings of him were influenced by that. Yet if you create a really good portrait, they become a historical document, especially with people like him who don't give themselves up to being interviewed very often.

So I wanted to make it interesting, but above all I wanted to make it accurate.

I had painted a few well-known and interesting people by that stage, like Tony Blair and Nicole Kidman, but Prince Philip was slightly different. He was one of those people who have been in your field of view since your childhood, people who feel part of the landscape.

His office didn't communicate through emails or phone calls at that time, so all the arrangements were done by post. Visiting Buckingham Palace, where the sittings for the portrait took place, is a little like stepping back into a space where time has no meaning. You go into a building with a lot of gold and ornate detail, but it's also got the slightly rough edges of a boarding school.

There's a dedicated room in the Palace for the purpose, presumably because they are asked to sit for portraits on such a regular basis. So there were several others on the go at the time and one in particular that dominated the room. It must have been 12 or 15 feet long and then my tiny 12-by-15-inch canvas was nearby on this little easel.

Meeting members of the royal family is typically very regimented, and on the whole you stand in a certain place so they come in and converse with you. I think Prince Philip may have rung down first, but he then came in, walked straight past us, and completely ignored the protocols we'd been told to expect. He walked over, inspected the canvas and sort of said: "Is that it?" His attitude was: well, let's get on with it. There was no nonsense.

When painting a portrait, one of the first things is to ensure that people are not feeling self-conscious. The more natural they are, the more likely you are to see the real person, and obviously the whole point of painting someone is to depict who they really are.

As he had obviously sat for portraits before, the first hour was less about that sense of easing him into it, than both of us, but particularly him, sizing up the dynamic. He had committed to a few sittings and had to be with me for that time, and he was known as someone who didn't suffer fools. I imagine he was trying to work out whether it was going to be interesting for him.

With some paintings there can be a bit of a dilemma about where the subject's eyes should be looking, because you know it will shape the process and the experience of people seeing it. But this wasn't one of those. I was very certain from the start that I would use a direct gaze for Philip. He was engaging and engaged by people. If he came into the room, there wasn't any way you weren't going to be aware of him.

A Jonathan Yeo portrait of Prince Philip
Jonathan Yeo, HRH Duke of Edinburgh, 2008, oil on canvas, 38cm x 30cm. ©2021, Jonathan Yeo Studio

The conversation, as I remember it, was very wide-ranging. He clearly wanted to learn but also educate you at the same time. There was definitely a competitive edge to his intellectual curiosity, a sort of restlessness. We discussed news and current affairs and he was very interested in what was going on around the world. I was particularly struck by his interest in science and the environment.

I think we had four sittings in total and I quickly learnt you had to be on your toes with Prince Philip. He certainly wasn't a docile character and, above all, there was always a sense that something was about to happen.

I got the impression he liked to be challenged, challenge others, and to win. I grew up with a father who was a politician, so I was quite used to people who liked picking abstract intellectual fights. I like to think there were a couple of times when I persuaded him of a different point of view on something, but mostly it was the other way around.

At one point in a sitting, he asked me what stage of the painting I was on, and at first I put it down to the fact that he was so used to sitting for portraits that he knew the steps. I started to realize, as he was getting more precise and asking about the colors, brushes and thinners, that it was more than curiosity or politeness. I asked if he had ever done any painting himself, and he told me that he had learned quite a few years prior and had actually taken it up again more recently. I was very curious.

After we had chatted for a while about what he was doing, Philip said he was going to bring his work to the next sitting and show me. I have a few positive-sounding platitudes for when people show me their work and it isn't very good, but it was quite obvious by then that Philip was a black-and-white thinker and would have noticed that and put me on the spot. So, I slightly nervously went along to the next sitting, hoping that he might have forgotten.

I needn't have worried, because it turned out he didn't ask if I thought they were good. He wasn't showing his paintings to me because he wanted approval, he wanted practical help to improve.

The other thing was, they were rather good and very different to what I had expected. He seemed such an alpha male, with a restless intellect, yet his paintings were impressionistic with soft and pretty, romantic colors. I had somehow assumed his work would be bolder, graphic or hard-edged somehow and they took me by surprise.

At the end of the final sitting, Philip came around to look at the portrait and smiled. But he didn't say anything. I was made aware at some point later that protocol dictates that royals don't comment on portraits or make value judgments.

Hopefully it does what I set out to do, which is capture who he was at that time.

As a person to spend time with, Philip was utterly fascinating and I remember trying to figure out afterward, why was it that he was so different from what I had expected. For someone who was born a century ago and clearly surrounded and insulated by institutions and structures that were from even further back, he wasn't "stuck in another time" as he was often depicted. I couldn't help thinking that as a clever man, he could have certainly done something about the public perception of him if he had wanted to.

Jonathan Yeo, British portraitist
British artist Jonathan Yeo, who painted a portrait of Prince Philip in 2006. Courtesy of Jonathan Yeo

You never know which of your work will turn out to have long term significance. I don't follow a formula, and you don't always have a say in when the stars will align. I just tried to play it straight and be honest about who I had encountered in Philip.

But when I was catching up on social media on the evening of April 9, the day Philip died, I realized that a huge number of people had shared my painting of him.

It was lovely to see that this little portrait from 15 years ago is not just one that people recognize, but even something that can be an emotional touchstone at a moment like this. But I don't take it too much from it. It's sort of like one of your children doing something well, you're just proud, in a way, that you're vaguely responsible.

Jonathan Yeo is one of the world's leading figurative artists. He has painted and worked with iconic and celebrated figures around the world. Yeo lives and works in London.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.