How do you squeeze the life story of Michael Noakes into a couple paragraphs? He's the sort of man who really should sit down and write his memoirs. Unfortunately, as one of Britain's leading portrait painters, the work is still piling up at seventy eight years old. He's also been dealing with the loss of his wife, the eminent literary scholar Vivien Noakes, who died last year. 'People in Malvern really have been charming to me and have been very kind and supportive since my loss' he tells me, when we meet at his house.
In his studio a large, east-facing window frames a view of the Cotswolds in the distance. Around us the paintings hang like a who's who of the 20th Century. Two former Archbishops of Canterbury gaze down on the Queen Mother, while Alec Guinness reclines on a wooden chair. In the corner, a jovial young man holding a pipe leans back on the corner of the frame; a self-portrait of Michael in 1968.
After studying for eight years at Art Schools, Michael was elected to the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, and then the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Some of his most famous sittings soon followed. 'I've painted most of the Royal Family at least once' he says. Princess Anne must like him, she's been painted six times. The Queen, too, has been a repeat subject. 'I've spent a total of twenty or more hours in sittings alone with the Queen, which must be very unusual' Michael says.
In the political world, perhaps one of his most famous portraits was of the former American President Bill Clinton. 'Painting President Clinton proved a little tricky, as he was on the go with advisers constantly rushing in and out of the Oval Office. He wasn't going to stop for me!' he says.
He painted Margaret Thatcher when in office as Prime Minister, afterwards she visited Michael at his home in London to be painted for another picture. This completed portrait, showing her on the step outside Number Ten Downing Street, stands over twelve feet in height. 'I suggested a large portrait to her, and she simply said 'Let's do that''. When it comes to representing heights and proportion, Michael is meticulous. Before completing the portrait, he plotted the exact dimensions of Downing Street with the help of one of his sons, using a tape measure. 'We got one or two funny looks as well as help from the policemen on duty!' he says. Lady Thatcher became a friend of Michael and his wife. 'To my mind she's a kinder, more thoughtful person than the public image might suggest, and I wanted to reflect that'.
Michael's obsession for accuracy got him into trouble on another occasion, when he was keen to measure the height of the Queen, with her eye and shoulder levels, for comparison with other figures in a group picture. When Michael asked whether it might be possible, the Queen's Private Secretary simply said 'What, measure the Queen? I'll ask' and left the matter at that. On the day of the first sitting, Michael asked 'has your Secretary explained about measuring you, ma'am?' to which the Queen replied, simply, 'No'. 'Well, I became pinker and pinker!' says Michael, 'as I explained what I wanted to do. At the end of my mumbled explanation the Queen said 'Yes, that's all right' and so I started measuring. I was in such a state I nearly managed to cover the sleeve of her dress in black felt-tip pen!' The finished portrait was a success, and a study for it hangs today in Clarence House, the official residence of the Prince of Wales.
Perhaps Michael's most ambitious project was to document a year in the life of The Queen, following her on tours abroad as well as her visits to events in Britain. His wife Vivien planned the book and words while Michael completed a wealth of sketches and paintings, documenting royal life with an unprecedented level of access. The finished book is something he is still clearly proud of.
Portrait painting doesn't always come easily though. 'I can try as hard as I like, but on some days I have to stop, and re-start my work'. One portrait took sixteen attempts before Michael was content with the result. It's a mark of the artist's striving for perfection. Even now, his work can attract people like Pope Benedict XVI, whom he was commissioned to paint for the Vatican.
Michael's achievements, with Vivien's, were recently honoured by the placing of a blue plaque on their old home in St John's Wood in London. It was unveiled by their old friend David Attenborough. Although much of Michael's work still takes him to London, he enjoys life here in Malvern. 'This is a marvellous town to live in, life here is much easier than London'.
Despite a dazzling list of former clients, Michael is keen to stress that he's not simply a painter of 'celebrity'; his commissions are of people from all walks of life. Nonetheless, its hard not to be wowed by the rows of famous faces captured in his portraits. One in particular catches the eye; the actress Margaret Rutherford, in old age, sitting in a chair and gazing out of the picture with a benign smile lighting up her face. 'A lovely woman' muses Michael, 'I remember going to her house in Chalfont St Peter (Buckinghamshire) to paint her. As I looked around the room I saw her Oscar on the mantelpiece. Wanting to encourage her to talk, I said 'When did you win that?' ' Oh, I don't know, dear' she replied. 'Last Thursday, I think!'