Royal Paintbox – Q&A with Director Margy Kinmonth

Image above: Queen Victoria’s Paintbox; Royal Paintbox, Foxtrot Films

A documentary based on a conversation with King Charles about his art and that of his ancestors

There is a vogue at the moment for long, lingering camera shots of lovely paintings in very high definition. Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition was the number one ‘event cinema’ release at the end of April. Foxtrot Films’ documentary about the Hammersmith artist Eric Ravilious – Drawn to War won a Big Screen Award and Best documentary Film at the 2022 LA Femme International film festival for the way in which it highlighted the artist’s work.

The Ravilious film was so successful here that Chiswick Cinema will be bringing it back later in the year. The same director, Margy Kinmouth, was at Chiswick Cinema last week talking about another of her documentaries, Royal Paintbox, based on a conversation with King Charles about his own and his ancestors’ art works.

Image above: Prince Charles talking to Margy Kinmonth; Foxtrot Films

50o years of royal artists

Mary Queen of Scots was the earliest royal antecedent who dabbled in art, as far as they could ascertain. Five centuries ago she occupied her time in prison, waiting for Queen Elizabeth’s decision on her fate, with embroidery.

It was not just an idle way of passing the time, Margy Kinmonth told the audience at Chiswick Cinema, but a way of asserting her independence by sending a subversive message – the vine in the embroidery symbolised continuity. Her line would continue and would continue to bear fruit.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619 – 1682), a cavalry general who fought in the English Civil War, was an accomplished maker of mezzotint prints – a monochrome printmaking process which superseded the woodcut.

Prince Charles, as he was at the time the documentary was recorded, leafed through Prince Rupert’s paintings and prints – lots of pictures of soldiers and battles – chatting animatedly about them. You could see that the subject of art brought out the best in him. He is clearly very enthusiastic about it.

“Certain people who know him quite well have said this is the most intimate portrait of him they have ever seen” said Margy proudly.

“I wanted him just to talk quietly and respond to me rather than making speeches. I didn’t want it to be an interview as such. I wanted it to be more of a conversation. I wanted to have surprise and an emotional response from him.”

Image above: Margy Kinmonth

She had written to him initially not expecting much and was surprised to get an almost immediate response. She was invited to tea at Clarence House to discuss the project and he said yes straight away, which is very unusual.

Royal enthusiasm notwithstanding, it still took her more than two years to film, getting the most she could out of half hour sessions in the various palaces. She filmed at Balmoral, Birkhall, Highgrove, Windsor Castle, Frogmore and Osborne House and Prince Charles took her out into the highlands to show her some of his own favourite places to paint.

He loves to try and capture the snow on the hill, he told her. He used to take an easel and paint en plein air, but found our climate not conducive to such activity. You tend to get rain splotches, which are particularly unhelpful when using watercolours. He switched to making sketches and showed Margy his notes of where the light fell and what the colours should be.

“The light is so important” he said. “The colour of beech trees in winter when the bare branches go purple is difficult to get right.”

Image above: Silver birches in winter on the Balmoral estate in Scotland; Foxtrot Films

Margy managed to mirror the views in his watercolours with similar light at the same time of day in the same season in her film. She showed the highlands in winter and the lakes he had painted  with shafts of light illuminating sections of hillside.

Queen Victoria painted many of the same views in similar light. King Charles is a prolific artist but Queen Victoria painted literally thousands of pictures. He remarked on the similarity – not just of the views and the fact they both used watercolours, but the similarity in style.

“I’ve ended up doing the same sort of views [of Balmoral]. It’s home. I’ve tromped across these hills for over 60 years. They become part of your soul.”

Image above: Prince Charles walking on the Balmoral estate; Foxtrot Films

He sounded genuinely delighted as he showed Margy the paintings and drawings Queen Victoria had made of her children. They showed Victorian dress in great detail and gave some insight into how the children spent their time. There was a lot of dressing up and making theatre productions. Albert also drew, but his pictures were more of battles and soldiers.

It is very noticeable how Queen Victoria’s paintings changed after Albert’s death. She spent 40 years in mourning and painting was her solace. Before his death she always drew people, but after it she turned to empty landscapes.

Once of her daughters, Princess Louise, was a “seriously good artist,” said Charles. She became a sculptor and the first member of her family to exhibit in sculpture at the Royal Academy.

Image above: Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones at work; Foxtrot Films

Prince Charles was obviously chuffed to have inherited artistic skills from his ancestors and pleased that they are coming through in the next generation. Princess Margaret’s daughter Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones is a professional artist who sells her work through a gallery.

“It demonstrates the importance of being introduced to art at a young age”, said Prince Charles, “and of learning to look and observe.”

I learned that he has a drawing school in London – the Prince’s Drawing School, recently renamed the Royal Drawing School, which offers all sorts of art courses to young people and offers scholarship places for 10 – 18year olds.

The documentary is a very gentle watch. Margy has made the most of what she was able to take from their brief meetings, and padded it out with comments from Lady Antonia Fraser, Jane Roberts, Charles Saumarez Smith, Marina Warner, Jane Ridley, Catherine Goodman, Susannah Fiennes, Countess Mountbatten Of Burma, as well as Sarah Armstrong-Jones.

It is showing in selected cinemas around the country and wherever they go Foxtrot Films has a little book on show of the pictures of Prince Louis of Battenberg (1854 – 1921). He spent a lot of his time at sea and as a consequence many of his drawings are of his ships and of his travels. These were first shown in the Illustrated London News on 8 April 1876.

Images above: Watercolours by Prince Louis of Battenberg 

To find out more about Royal Paintbox and Foxtrot Films visit their website

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