'More than just a hobby': Documentary explores royals as artists

'The Royal Painbox' highlights the artistic leanings of royals from Mary, Queen of Scots to today's Prince Charles

The Prince of Wales during the filming of Royal PaintboxMargy Kinmonth had no intention of making a documentary about royalty.Then the award-winning filmmaker went to an exhibition of watercolour, where she saw a paintbox that belonged to Queen Victoria. It was, she recalls, “very old, very worn. She had obviously done a lot of painting.” In fact the monarch was not only prolific—sketching, drawing and painting thousands upon thousands of works—but she was also a talented amateur. After a bit of digging, Kinmonth realized she’d stumbled across a gold mine. For centuries, the British royal family has included gifted artists among its members. And its huge library and archive, located at Windsor Castle, has many examples as well as letters, documents, palettes and a surprising number of paintboxes.

Realizing no one else has explored the topic, Kinmonth write to this generation’s most prominent artist, Prince Charles, asking, as she recalls, “Would he be interested in doing a film about artists in his family, with him at the centre as a very good amateur painter?” She got a nine-page handwritten letter back. He was very interested. Soon she was having tea at Clarence House. A deal was struck: since Kinmonth doesn’t like narrators, the Prince of Wales would do most of the talking as the two of them leisurely explored the royal family’s own talents.

On Friday, Sept. 12, their collaboration, The Royal Paintbox, airs on PBS. For the first time, instead of viewers being treated to the royal family’s staggering collection of artwork—Da Vinci sketches, Rembrandt paintings and Canova sculptures to name a few—it’s their own creations that take centre stage. Kinmonth’s skill as a documentary filmmaker shines: she gets Charles to talk about art, and his own skills—he calls them rubbish—and also gets him to open up about his creative process. Watching him sketch a scene of the Scottish Highlands in a small notebook, then, weeks later, transform that scribbled work in to a fully formed watercolour, all the while exploring his love for art elevates this documentary head and shoulders above the usual stolid, formal royal fare. “It’s a real look behind the scene at the private time of royals,” Kinmonth says. “It’s more than just a hobby.”

It turns out that for more than four centuries, royalty has been involved in the arts. The first example Kinmonth uses is an embroidery created by Mary, Queen of Scots, during her long imprisonment by Elizabeth I. But she wasn’t an outlier. There are dozens and dozens of talented royals, including Rupert of the Rhine who invented the process of mezzotint in the 1650s and Victoria’s daughter Louisa, whose sculpture of her mother stands outside Kensington Palace. They had the best tutors, the best teachers, and, as the documentary says, “they made amateurismness quite professional.” However, because of their social standing, the royals couldn’t become professionals.

The one who came closest in Victorian times was Prince Louis of Battenberg, Charles’s paternal great-grandfather. When he accompanied the future Edward VII to India, he sold sketches of the tour to the prestigious Illustrated London News. His artistic talents remained unexplored as he climbed through the ranks of the Royal Navy, eventually becoming first sea lord. Today, however, the old taboos have been lifted. The most talented royal today is Charles’s cousin, Lady Sarah Chatto, a professional artist based in London.

As for Charles, “his absolute passion is art,” Kinmonth says. “What he wants more than anything is to have people have the confidence to draw and paint.” So he founded the Prince’s Drawing School, where students of all ages can learn the skills to paint—like a prince if that’s where their passions lie.