Story 69

Behind the portrait

The initial commission from the National Portrait Gallery to paint Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder happened after one of my pieces — ‘The Reverend Alan Grange' — won second prize in the 1981 Imperial Tobacco Portrait Competition. It was a hugely exciting prospect given the kudos of my subjects.

Rosalind Cuthbert with the portrait of Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder she painted, hanging at the National Portrait Gallery

My initial preparation included two weekend visits to Cavendish. I remember Leonard picking me up from Sudbury for the seven-mile drive to their Suffolk home.

The challenge was to make them both equally important in the composition, and I tried several arrangements that matched their individual body shapes; Sue Ryder was a small and slight woman, Leonard Cheshire was tall and rather asymmetrical around the shoulders.

So, by seating Sue Ryder slightly below eye level at her desk and standing her husband immediately behind her, I found his angularity and her diminutive frame complemented one another, and their physical nearness gave the atmosphere a gentle intimacy.

Preparation for a June sitting began in January 1982 with a charcoal drawing of both of them sitting in the study. Pastel studies and photography of the pair followed and I remember how kind they both were, allowing time in what was obviously a rather manic schedule. Miss Ryder seemed understandably tired, as my audiences with them combined with a busy period for her work in Poland. I remember the presence of huge lorries loaded with food and destined for Warsaw parked in front of the house.

It was a huge relief when they liked the pastel I did, and I was surprised and pleased to find that it was a tolerable likeness. Rosa the assistant housekeeper enthused that I’d ‘captured the way he looks when he’s praying!’ Perhaps so, the eyes are slightly downcast and the expression thoughtful.

Study of Sue Ryder and Leonard Cheshire by Rosalind Cuthbert

By April 1982, I had done a few pencil studies for the portrait. I began the actual portrait on Saturday 5 June. I remember the drive up as the weather was incredibly hot and humid. I had to call the AA for what transpired to be an over-heated engine, got lost somewhere near Gerrards Cross, but eventually arrived to start work.

The whole process of finishing the actual portrait would last until mid-July, during which I spent long periods of time with the Cheshires. At times I worked for twelve hours solid, but blessed relief was to be found in the idyllic Suffolk countryside and the medieval character of Long Melford and Lavenham.

I attended the event at the National Portrait Gallery on September 6 and it was wonderful to see the portrait hung once more. To come full circle and celebrate the life of Leonard Cheshire in his centenary year was a moment to savour and it was a delight to meet his daughter Elizabeth and people from the charity. I hope everyone will enjoy the piece as it hangs in the Balcony Gallery.

Portrait of Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder by Rosalind Cuthbert

It was a huge relief when they liked the pastel I did.