Alan on tour with Charles
by Di Bowerman
The Exmouth Journal - 2005r/span>
Colaton Raleigh-based international artist Alan Cotton tells Di Bowerman about his time on a royal tour
If, in the future, Prince Charles takes up oil painting instead of watercolours, it might be because Colaton Raleigh landscape artist Alan Cotton has had a hand in it.
Alan has just returned from accompanying the Prince on his royal tour of New Zealand, Australia and Fiji, and talked to him about his art.
"I was keen to get him to do oil painting. His work is very tonal; he produces good contrast between light and dark. Considering the conditions under which he works, it is extraordinary what he does; he is very gifted."
During a two-hour dinner on the flight home in a specially adapted DC8-72, the Prince "talked of many things" although not of his impending wedding.
Alan said Prince Charles was concerned he would have to have a studio to do oil painting in. "I said surely he had enough room at Highgrove. I think he would relish it."
The request to join the Prince of Wales on his recent trip was not unexpected. Two years ago Alan had been invited to join him on an oversees trip after a letter from St James's Palace, bearing the distinctive Prince of Wales Feathers, dropped through his letterbox at Brockhill Studio.
The phone call came in January asking if he would be free to go and he flew from Brize Norton on February 27 as HRH's official tour artist.
Alan said: "The most difficult thing before I went was that I was told to tell no-one, because of security, and I wanted to tell everyone!"
Having kept a diary of his trip, Alan can now recount his amazing fortnight, which began with an unscheduled stop in Sri Lanka at the Prince's request, to enable him to see areas devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami.
Alan recalls: "Helicopters were waiting on the runway to fly us the one hour journey to Batticaloa, a town of some 75,000 people, and as we flew low over the town we could see the trail of destruction wrought among the homes and small shops. The temple - a magnificent ornate structure - was split in half.
“For me it was a humbling experience - the fabric will be repaired but the pain will be always in the people's hearts. Many have lost whole families.
"The Prince has the ability to put people at their ease and communicates easily. In Sri Lanka he gave everyone a lift. I am full of admiration for him. He is
compassionate and works very hard. His energy levels are phenomenal. I think his role is as a great motivator of people.
"At a hospital burns unit in Perth he talked to a lot of patients and made immediate contact with them and put them at ease. The crowds cheered him; there is enormous support for him."
During his whirlwind tour of hospitals, factories, housing developments and official receptions including a spectacular one by Maori warriors in Wellington - Alan managed to find time for sketching, filling a red hard-backed sketch pad "given to me by my friend Jed Felby from Budleigh Salterton".
He said: "Our first stop in New Zealand was Dunedin, on South Island, and here at last I began to see the wild unmanicured landscape that would form the basis of a series of paintings back home in my studio."
Alan soon learned to keep up with the royal convoy after being left behind at Perth airport. Having kept a diary of his two week trip, Alan recounts: "I was enthusiastically helping to bring hand luggage down the steps, looked up and to my dismay saw the convoy disappearing at great speed.
"I was left behind and followed on with the baggage and the team organising it all. They told me that once His Royal Highness gets into his car the whole convoy moves and I needed to stay close to the main tour party at all times. I certainly made sure I wasn't left behind again!"
The whistle-stop tour continued with the Prince being greeted at Alice Springs by a group of Aborigine women, who "danced topless and barefoot on the hot tarmac, performing ancient ceremonial rituals." In the evening the party flew to Melbourne, arriving at 11.30pm.
Alan recalls: "Travelling to Government House was like being part of a fast-moving Hollywood film. Motorcycle outriders raced ahead, stopping all traffic at junctions, and, led by police cars with flashing lights, we sped through the city centre unimpeded."
At a reception at Geelong Grammar School, Charles met some of his old school chums from Timbertops where he spent two terms in the '60s.
One of the high spots of the tour was a visit to the Australian War Memorial at Canberra, where Alan was touched by the many thousands of poppies attached to the names of loved ones "creating a peppered design of red against the marble columns."
The tour moved on to New Zealand, to the Royal Albatross Centre at Talaroa Head, where only 60 people a year are allowed to get close to the 17 species of rare albatross and Alan was even allowed to clamber down a forbidden cliff path to sit and draw until the Prince was ready to leave.
"When I was originally invited to become a tour artist, it had been anticipated that we should draw and paint together, but Prince Charles' itinerary was so frenetic that there was never a moment when he was free to join me," remembers Alan.
Armed with his red sketchbook and some new Indian ink pens bought specially for the trip, he decided to do some sketching in the vegetable garden at Corstorphine House, Dunedin, South Island.
"The Prince stood over my shoulder while I was doing a sketch of the garden and it will almost certainly be one I do a painting from."
It was while in Wellington that Alan saw what the Prince had to contend with in the way of manipulated media coverage.
A packed morning of events included a wreath-laying ceremony at New Zealand's tomb of the unknown warrior and a civic centre walkabout.
"Two women in the crowd decided to take off their tops to reveal their breasts. The press and television cameras missed this the first time round, so cynically they encouraged the women to repeat the disrobing for their shots."
"Despite all the dedicated, worthwhile work the Prince of Wales did during his visit, this event, of course, took the headlines the following day."
Before moving on to Fiji, the Prince attended a reception in Auckland for the New Zealand branch of The Prince's Trust and Alan was moved by accounts from two young people who described how, after being heavily into drugs and attempts at suicide, they were rescued by the Trust and their lives transformed.
"Listening to these articulate and centred young people, it brought the work of the Trust strongly into focus for me and I hope that I can do something within the visual arts to support the Prince's Trust in the UK."
Fijians have a tremendous affection for the Royal Family and Prince Charles was given a rousing welcome by thousands who lined the route.
"Hundreds of school children lined the road and despite a sudden monsoon thunderstorm they remained standing, waving and cheering along the entire route."
A local driver took Alan to the mountains and patiently waited as the artist drew for several hours.
"I then said I would like to draw and photograph people so he took me to his own village and called everyone out of their houses.
"They welcomed me in, gave me drinks and were happy to be photographed."
Heading homewards Alan was invited to join the Prince for dinner and they talked of many things during the two-hour meal.
Alan said: "I showed him my drawing books, discussed ideas and tried to persuade him to do oil painting. I have great admiration for all the hard work and dedication he put into every moment of the tour.
"It was a sadness to me that he never once had time to sit and work beside me."
Alan developed a real empathy for the Prince, and felt sad about the treatment of him in some national newspapers.
"He is very likeable and doesn't deserve some of the press he gets. He is very funny and self-effacing.
"He meets more people than a politician. His appointments are arranged well ahead and he has to do them. We can back away from work if we have a bad day. He doesn't have that luxury."
From the wealth of material he has gathered, Alan will soon begin transforming his sketches into oil paintings and once finished Prince Charles will have first choice of the series to remind him of his whirlwind tour.
His London gallery, Messum's Fine Art, will show them in September 2006.