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The Catholic who painted Thatcher, the Queen and two popes

Michael Noakes with his portrait of Benedict XVI

Michael Noakes, who died last week aged 84, was best known as what some would describe – not necessarily with approval – as a society portrait painter of the old school. He painted royalty, captains of industry, the heads of Oxbridge colleges, senior military officers, eminent surgeons, presidents, popes, archbishops and abbots (especially abbots of Downside, where he had been at school and to which he returned on retreat every year). He was indeed always in demand from the great and good, and his close connection with the Queen and her family did him no harm in that regard. But he was not a snob, and in addition to establishment commissions he painted a wide variety of people who aroused his interest. He was also a notable landscape artist.

Michael was a superb draughtsman, and his portraits in pencil and chalk are every bit as effective as his better known (and more expensive) oils. But his naturalistic style was not his greatest asset as a portraitist. What set him apart, in my view, was his real interest in the people he portrayed. His engagement can be seen in the light and life in the faces, above all the eyes, of his subjects. “There’s always something unique, some humorous quality in even the dullest old stick,” he once said to me. 60 years in his profession had given him a huge fund of entertaining, gently waspish stories.

Michael and his wife, the biographer Vivien Langley, spent a year accompanying the Queen on her duties, resulting in The Daily Life of the Queen: An Artist’s Diary. The book added greatly to the outside world’s knowledge of the Queen (she takes a St Christopher medal when she flies, as well as a kettle, marmalade and Dundee cake); it also converted Michael from a lukewarm to a convinced royalist.

Michael got on famously with Margaret Thatcher, too. Having made several conventional portraits of her while she was prime minister, in 1996 he conceived the brilliant idea of a large trompe-l’oeil painting of her emerging from the door of Number 10, hand outstretched in greeting. She absolutely loved it, and artist and subject were subsequently photographed in front of the 12’5” canvas on the steps of Downing Street.

Michael was a devout Catholic: in his later years he returned regularly to Downside Abbey for the annual three-day Easter retreat. I first met him there in the early 90s. My wife Fiona Cadwallader (also an artist and designer) had been one of a very small number of girls at Downside in the seventies, and this put me into the unusual position of being the husband of an Old Gregorian. Other male OG’s could never place me. When I first saw Michael he was wearing his Garrick tie, and as I had just been elected to the Garrick, it gave us a shared bond, a club within the Downside club.

Over the years we met either at Downside or the Garrick, and Michael was always a charming, gentle and amusing companion. Early on I enquired shyly about the cost of a portrait, which, with three small children and a mortgage, turned out to be an unaffordable luxury. More recently we had agreed that he would paint me at his house in Malvern. But his diary was a full one, despite the prostate cancer from which he suffered for several years, and it never happened. Of course I am sorry that I didn’t get to sit for him – mostly because I missed the chance for some really good conversation with a great and highly intelligent artist.