The Daily Telegraph
Portraitist noted for fine draughtsmanship whose sitters ranged from the clergy to the jet set
JOHN REDVERS, who has died aged 92, was a Church of England deacon who converted to Roman Catholicism, but ultimately found an artistic rather than a spiritual vocation, becoming a talented portrait painter.
His sitters ranged from Siegfried Sassoon to Cecil Parkinson, and his work took him all over the world. Among his most enthusiastic patrons was his old friend Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Thailand (whom he had first met as a curate in Cornwall, where the Prince was then living with his English wife), who commissioned him to paint several members of the Thai court.
Redvers was also a favourite of the Jordanian royal family and the Rothschild family, as well as high-born European Catholics such as Gloria, Princess of Thurn and Taxis and her sister Maya von Schönburg.
Inevitably, perhaps, he was much in demand to paint clergymen, and in 1992 was commissioned to provide the first official portrait of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. It was not the easiest of tasks as the Archbishop, heavily involved with the final negotiations for the release of Terry Waite, was exhausted by long workdays.
Redvers revealed to the press the dilemma that faced him during the sittings at Lambeth Palace: “If we got into a good theological discussion it was difficult for me to concentrate on the painting, but if I shut up he went to sleep.” He admitted that he proffered views far more controversial than those he really held in a bid to keep the archiepiscopal eyes from closing.
With characteristic forthrightness, Redvers complained to The Daily Telegraph about the state of the Archbishop’s teeth: “His mother is to blame. [She should have] taken him to the dentist earlier in life.” Nevertheless, Dr Carey was so delighted on being shown the portrait that he literally danced for joy.
Redvers emerged from the sittings a devoted admirer of the Archbishop, and later wrote to The Times to complain about the unsympathetic treatment Carey received from the press.
Redvers favoured working in pastels whenever possible, finding that their immediacy and delicacy complemented his firm, confident draughtsmanship.
Leigh Parry, president of the Pastel Society, praised Redvers in the foreword to one of his exhibition catalogues as a “painter who with economy of means and freshness of touch captures form, expression and that elusive likeness to the sitter, while at the same time preserving an illusion of easy accomplishment”.
John Stephen Redvers was born in Birmingham on July 18 1928, the son of Major Charles Redvers Piggins and his wife Helen. (John would drop the Piggins part of his name in the 1970s.) When he was six one of his watercolours won a national art competition for under-10s. From Solihull School he went on a scholarship to the Slade, where Augustus John and Stanley Spencer were among his tutors. In his final year he won a place at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, securing the award with a detailed drawing of a human arm.
While still at the Slade, however, he had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, and at the height of the Berlin Airlift began to lose his sense of artistic calling. “The realisation that we were, because of Stalin’s bloody-mindedness, in imminent danger of moving from a cold war to a hot war … was horrendous, and painting seemed inconsequential in the face of it,” he recalled.
He asked to be taken off flying, and when later he left the RAF he decided to offer himself for ordination. After a period as a curate in Bodmin he was ordained deacon, but with typical clarity of thought he came to the conclusion that only a church that could trace its origins back to the Upper Room at Pentecost could be the true one, and so converted to Catholicism.
He renounced his worldly goods and in 1958 joined the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin in Wales. The friars concluded that he did not have a vocation, however, and he found himself having to start his life anew, with no idea of what profession to pursue. During a visit to an aunt in the Cotswolds he fell ill, and was unable to pay the doctor’s bill; when he mentioned that he had been an artist, the doctor commissioned a portrait of his children in lieu of a fee.
Although Redvers had not painted in more than a decade, and had in any case never been interested in portraiture, the painting was a success and determined the course of the rest of his life.
He was soon in demand, and in 1965 he married Mary Pennel, whom he had met while painting her four-year-old godson. They honeymooned in Majorca and liked it so much that they lived there for a time, with Redvers painting the international set and making a reputation among the beau monde.
They subsequently lived in Fife and then in 1979 settled on a farm in Gloucestershire, where Redvers built a hexagonal studio on the site of a derelict cider mill, with excellent natural lighting; he encouraged his sitters to come to him there rather than going to them.
His wife gained a considerable reputation as a breeder and international judge of Welsh ponies, but nevertheless she found time to help her husband greatly in his work, welcoming sitters and talking or reading to them to keep them stimulated.
In the 1990s part of their land was transformed by their son David into the hugely successful stud farm Tweenhills. Latterly Redvers featured most often in the newspapers when being quizzed about David’s highprofile activities as a pro-hunting activist; he spoke passionately in defence of the right to hunt, although it was not an activity he pursued himself.
Asked to account for his success as an artist, Redvers lamented that “so much of what is being exhibited now, especially in London” displayed little skill in draughtsmanship and bore no relation to what most customers wanted, and observed: “Most people commission me, I imagine, because they feel I produce the kind of thing they are looking for to adorn that most intimate of environments – their own homes.”
John Redvers, who continued to travel the world for commissions into his late 80s, is survived by his wife and their son and two daughters.
John Redvers, born July 18 1928, died March 28 2021