L• L' 's been a busy year for painter Michael Noakes. He's completed s third portrait of the Prince of Wales and designed a coin featuring Charles, as well as exhibiting several new works with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters at the Mall Galleries. I caught up with him at his home in St John's Wood.
Frank Sinatra had just died when I called. Chatting about him, Michael mentioned a portrait' .,,ene of 01' Blue Eyes forTN-Mord sleeve. I remembered spotting the platinum disc he was awarded for it hanging in a downstairs loo.
As it was a warm afternoon we decided to talk in the garden. While Michael went for some iced water, I settled on a picnic bench. The house, where he lives with his wife, author Vivien Noakes, was covered in pink clematis. The cat, black and shiny but a bit anxious he came from a local shelter eyed us from the shrubbery.
When Michael returned carrying a tray, he had a photograph under one arm. It showed him with a beard (he's grown nine over the years) next to Frank Sinatra who had his arm round Vivien. 'We were invited to meet him at the Royal Albert HaIl," Michael explained. "There was this six-foot-eight, completely bald bodyguard who kept uncomfortably near. I'm looking a bit peeved and worried aren't 1? I think at the time I was wondering whether he was planning to make Vivien Mrs Sinatra number five."
A pigeon whooshed down from a tree and started walking round us. It was a nice-looking bird with a blue and mauve neck. Michael got a bag of muesli and fed it as we talked.
He is rather tall, softly spoken and affable. Our conversation meandered over many subjects his career, art, history, the whereabouts of the Stone of Scone and the Church. Fascinating. The bird gained confidence and joined us at the table.
The Noakes have two sons, a daughter and four grandchildren. Educated at Downside and the Royal Academy, and past president of the Society of Catholic Artists, through the years Michael has had many distinguished clients. He is regularly commissioned by the Royal Family, has trekked in the footsteps of Prince Charles through Nepal, and has painted Cardinal Hume, Baroness Thatcher, Sir Alec Guiness and President Clinton at the White House. But he hates to be thought of as a society anise and just enjoys painting people: "My favourite subject is probably someone no-one has heard of."
Michael doesn't take himself too seriously. I get the impression he's quietly tickled by some aspects of his work. Through the years he's collected some intriguing mementos an exact replica of the doorway of Number ten sits in the studio, an unnerving-looking artist's dummy in the hallway wears Fergie's hat and the Duchess of Kent's summer dress. Michael once told me he had a secret ambition to complete the ensemble with one of Baroness Thatcher's handbags.
Painting the Queen for the first time was a little hair-raising. Noakes admits: "I was mesmerised. Didn't know what I was doing. When I had to measure her eye level I nearly covered her in felt tip pen." But once he starts working he is completely absorbed.
At one sitting with the Queen, he says, "I heard a knock at the door and exploded with a testy "who is that". The heir to the throne put his head around the door apologetically and asked if he might have a word with his mother."
All the royals are very polite, he says, and having now painted them many times he feels quite at ease with them especially Prince Charles,who he finds a wonderful conversationalist.
Being a Catholic, Michael says, keeps things in perspective: "Although one would always give due accord to people in high office, one realises we are all God's children."
A Eucharistic Minister in his own parish of Our Lady's in Lissom Grove and member of the Catholic Union, he also finds the Church a great support: "One's faith does take the edge off life's pressures. Problems that could otherwise seem crushing begin to look like the beating of a gnat's wing."
But he wishes the Church had a more cheerful image: "I would love to see more emphasis on the wonderful message of joy and hope in the Gospels. I don't want to sound critical of the leadership in England I consider myself a loyal and orthodox Catholic but we could do with a more positive approach from the centre, internationally. We need to practise our faith with real love. I was uneasy about the excommuni
cation of Fr Tissa 13alasuriya. One must be able to express one's thoughts. I think it is fully understandable to stop someone teaching anything contrary to Catholic belief, but excommunication good grief!
"The present Pope believes he cannot consider the ordinadon of women. He's entitled to say that but then to forbid everyone even to discuss the subject, I don't know what message that is sending."
Michael welcomed the arrival of many Anglicans and greater involvement of the laity, and he shared some innovative thoughts on the priesthood: "The celibate priesthood is a wonderful commitment. A married person couldn't possibly give so much, you'd be split. But I don't see why there couldn't also be some orders of married clergy as well, Perhaps requiring a commitment from both parties. We need change and should be able to talk about it. I would blee to see this start in this generation."
mimam es wish the Church, and Britain in general, w as more sensitive to art. "The time of Renaissance in Europe must have felt like working at NASA the cutting edge. France has more regard for artists, here it's considered an extra. Budgets for big civic buildings take into account plumbing and electrical fittings, but not mosaics and or sculpture. That's very sad."
"It is only a few long lifetimes back to the Puritan revolution and I sometimes feel that we are still suffering from its influences. Here we allow artistic decisions to be in the hands of non-practitioners. This would never be allowed in the field of law or medicine. I once asked Margaret Thatcher why she had put this chap Palumbo, a property developer, as chairman of the Arts Council. It was the only rather tense moment we had while I was painting her."
I wondered what Michael thought about recent exhibitions like the piles of bricks, Damian Hurst's pickled sheep and suchlike. He said: "Artists do look at things not interesting to lay persons. I'm aware of space and shape and have used trompe Foci] in some of my paintings. Rachel Whiteread's negative space is interesting."
Michael has a strong sense of history. A relative traces the family tree back to Fergus the Great, first King of the Scots. One antecedent, Sir Malcolm Macgregor, saved the life of King James I of Scotland in a hunting accident and later ancestors helped Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 rebellion.
The latest memberof the Noakes clan was born the day before I went to visit a baby girl, Freya, to their son and daughter-in-law Ben and Nicky.
Vivien came to remind Michael that it was time to go and visit her. They both looked quietly pleased as they drove away to the Whittington Hospital having dropped me off at the tube station.