As official portrait painter to the royals, Richard Stone has moved in high circles. ADAM LECHMERE hears how his wine knowledge helped along the way.
My lunch with Richard Stone was the first time – to my knowledge – that I have been waited on by a real butler.
I had expected the royal family’s favoured portrait painter to be wearing slippers and eating sardines out of a tin. But in a pinstripe suit and blue and gold cufflinks to match the sumptuous décor of his drawing room, Stone looks more like a prosperous Harley Street nip ‘n’ tuck specialist than a painter of royals.
Stone is the country’s foremost portraitist, with a string of credits from the Queen and Prince Charles to Margaret Thatcher and everyone in between. He’s working at the moment on the grand wedding portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Wessex, and has just completed Richard Wheeler’s (of Lay and Wheeler) portrait for the company’s 150th anniversary (shown right) ‘I couldn’t believe my luck to be able to talk about wine with him, over nine sittings,’ he says.
The butler, in white gloves, served Lay and Wheeler’s very gluggable house Champagne, and then a delicious lunch (sorry, ‘luncheon’, as it was called), cooked by Stone’s wife, of crab cakes with chilli lime aïoli, and parmesan chicken.
The food was carefully paired with Henschke’s 2001 Louis Semillon, a crisp Domaine de Clamentele Chablis, Nicolas Potel Hautes Côtes de Beaune Vieilles Vignes 2001 and the exquisite Duckhorn 2002 Sauvignon Blanc. I was constantly quizzed on the aptness of the matches.
It was delicious, and quaintly informal. While I discussed video games with Stone’s 10-year-old son, the butler hovered. Somewhat endearingly, my host didn’t really get the master-servant thing quite right: he discombobulated the man by asking solicitously if he ‘had time’ to do the washing up.
Stone is the most unassuming individual, and not quite what he seems. He’s definitely ‘of the people’ as Bertie Wooster would put it. His father was a postman, and he grew up in Essex, in a resolutely working-class household imbued with the protestant work ethic and the importance of good manners.
He was incredibly ambitious, single-mindedly pursuing his vocation to be a portrait painter. He wrote to the great artist Sir Gerald Kelly, who took him in as an apprentice at 14 and secured his first commissions. He made for an unusual young man, profoundly deaf in one ear after an early accident. He says he was ‘a real nerd’, desperate to acquire the social skills he’d need if he was to achieve his goal of one day painting the Queen.
At 18 he decided that good manners and an understanding of wine would be his secret weapon – the Trojan Horse with which he’d breach the defences of the upper orders. Armed with a knowledge of first growths and top Burgundies, the lad from Colchester would be admitted by the aristocracy he wanted to paint – which would in turn lead him to the Queen herself.
So he sat in London’s finest hotels and made a glass of Champagne last two hours while he studied the diners. ‘I was hungry to watch people. I was this sad character who would sit in the lobby of the Ritz and watch people come and go and see what they were ordering to learn the ways of the sophisticated.’
By the age of 22, with the help of influential mentors and a good deal of chutzpah (when phoning the Queen’s Comptroller he told him he was set to be the next Rembrandt, so not to hang up) Stone had become one of the youngest royal portrait painters, with his studies of the Queen Mother.
At the same time he was doing a lot of work at the Cambridge colleges – his first portraits had been noticed by the masters of Pembroke and Magdelene among others. There he was able to hone his wine knowledge.
‘Cambridge was wonderful because I was mixing with wine-loving society. It was a part of the meal and certainly at Magdelene they were very conscious of their wonderful cellars.’
This has led him to a lifelong appreciation. He now buys all his wine from Lay and Wheeler. He’s not a huge spender but goes for mid-list quality. ‘I can’t afford to amass a fantasy cellar. What I want from a collection is wines that work at every level. They must also surprise and delight but give pleasure on a weekly basis.’
When he throws a charity bash or a fundraising dinner for the Conservative party (‘I had 20 millionaires here for luncheon the other day’) the wine is an important component, designed to impress by the skill of the food match rather than the price of the bottle.
So bangers and mash will be matched with a 2000 Rhône – the Séguret Cuvée Tradition from Domaine de Mourchon – or an Alta Vista Malbec, and traditional apple pie with a 2002 Coteaux de Layon – all costing under a tenner.
In his collection there is Alsace from Meyer-Fonné, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Californian Pinot Noir from Pedroncelli, quality Gigondas, the great Henschke from Barossa, and Rully from Olivier Leflaive.
While some would serve only the best labels at dinner parties – Krug with shepherd’s pie comes to mind – Stone insists on getting the match right with modestly priced but carefully chosen wines. Despite all the protocol and the rather charming formality, that strikes me as truly classy.
Written by Adam Lechmere