It is just seven months since Rupert Alexander – one of Britain’s leading portrait painters – moved with his family from London to a village near Pewsey, and already he is working in his new and specially designed studio.
He wanted his studio to reflect those built by the great portraitists of the nineteenth century: “Given that nowadays most artists work in converted warehouses or workshops, a purpose built portrait studio is rare.”
The studio, which sits beside the Alexanders’ new home, was designed by Rupert with the collaboration of Nick Dolman of the Devizes firm Dolman Surveyors. Marlborough.news visited the new building before it was quite finished, but it is clear that the design has provided a wonderful working space – and perfect light.
As Rupert Alexander explained: “We built many models in order to better understand the internal light distribution in the studio. Light is central to my work so the studio has a vast five by three metre floor-to-ceiling window to provide a dramatic light onto my subjects.”
Alexander spent ten years studying, painting and teaching in Florence and his new studio is modelled on one he had there. Facing north, the studio has constant light throughout the day. And light coming in at forty-five degrees is important for portraiture: “It really pulls out the features – giving you all the structure of the face.”
He works almost exclusively on commission. His sitters have included three members of the royal family. When portraits of Prince Philip and Prince Charles were commissioned in 1998, he became the youngest artist in more than 200 years to be asked to paint a portrait of a member of the royal family.
Some years later Rupert Alexander was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen.
This portrait of the Queen – commissioned by the Royal Warrant Holders Association – was unveiled in 2010. Alexander has explained that this “portrait was intended as a less formal, if still sombre, depiction of Her Majesty, focusing on the intimate, human aspects of her character rather than the symbols of her public position.”
It was praised as being the most convincing portrait of Her Majesty for a long time – all the better for being simpler and less flattering than many previous portraits.
His portrait of the eminent British mathematician Sir Andrew Wiles hangs at the National Portrait Gallery – most appropriate for the man who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem.
In April this year his portrait of the Countess of Pembroke was unveiled at Wilton House. It hangs there alongside works by van Dyck, Rembrandt and Raphael. That is not Rupert Alexander’s only link to the classical portrait painters of old.
In Florence, Rupert Alexander studied under Charles Cecil at Cecil Studios and under Daniel Graves at the Florence Academy of Art. There he found a direct line in portrait technique from those great classical painters through to the Victorian masters of portraiture John Singer Sargent, Dennis Miller Bunker and William Paxton.
The technique is called ‘sight-size’. It was largely lost towards the end of the nineteenth century when modernism came to the fore with the Impressionists and then Picasso and more abstract approaches.
With ‘sight-size’, the canvas is placed alongside the sitter so that when the artist views both painting and subject from a distance they are seen at the same scale as one another, and in the same light. Standing back a few meters the artist is thus able to judge inaccuracies in proportion, tone and colour simply by flicking his eye from one to the other.
So why did Rupert Alexander – now in his mid-forties – and his wife Naomi and their young daughter India, decide to move to rural Wiltshire?
First, the triple garage in Balham did not make an ideal studio: “Most London studios are unsuitable for large scale portraiture, so it was a matter of moving out of London and building one.”
Secondly, when he is working on a portrait he works long hours and often seven days a week: “I work hard, and that’s the way I like it.”
So to see more of his daughter as she grows up, a studio beside their home means he can stop and have lunch as a family – or stop to read the bedtime story – and then get straight back to work. Instead of having to travel from the Balham studio to their London home.
Apart from the steady stream of portrait commissions, Rupert Alexander wants time to teach and to work on some narrative paintings – figurative but not actual portraits. Above all though he is looking forward to taking an easel out into the fields to paint landscapes: “The irony of moving to one of the most beautiful parts of England and then locking myself away in a studio all day is not lost on me!”
[Click on images to enlarge them.] You can see more portraits by Rupert Alexander on his website.