My best teacher

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Pietro Annigoni, the artist who painted the Queen's most well-known portrait, was formidable and charismatic. I was about 10 when we first met and I stood in awe of him. My mother is an artist and he was a family friend. Now and again we would have dinner together at a restaurant and I always took along my sketchpad. I did a lot of drawings of him. He had the kind of face you wanted to draw.

His eyes were his most striking feature. It could be unnerving when he looked at you because he had a really strong stare. He wasn't particularly tall, but he was very broad with a lot of dark brown hair, and he held himself very upright and very still.

I knew even as a child that I wanted to be an artist and left Stowe when I was 16. My parents thought I should go to art school. Annigoni heard of the plan, and, after looking at my work, invited me to go to Florence to study with him instead. For me it was perfect because art schools weren't then teaching, and don't now teach, the traditionally based drawing I was passionate about.

His secretary found me a room near his studio and I was in Florence on and off for 10 years. I wasn't his pupil as such because he didn't give lessons. I just got on with my work and took it to show him, and we would talk in his studio in the centre of Florence. I saw him in the mornings. In the afternoons he would work on his own. He didn't pay me, neither did he charge.

One of the first things he told me to do was to make drawings of plaster casts of famous sculptures. It was a technical exercise - like learning scales on the piano. He taught me how he mixed paint to his own special recipe with copious quantities of white wine and eggs. He always used good wine so he could drink any that was left. I used the recipe myself for a while, but don't any more because all my pictures ended up looking like Annigonis.

I worked with him on the frescoes he did in a chrch in Ponte Buggianese, between Pisa and Florence. We could work only in the spring and autumn, when the temperature was right for painting into a wet plaster. For several weeks we worked together all day from early morning until evening. At first I was marking up the cartoons and sometimes tracing the drawings and mixing the colours, but later I was allowed to paint some of the backgrounds and once, I did a figure of a saint.

He could be volatile, and I can remember him yelling at me up on the scaffolding. His intensity and discipline were astonishing. Sometimes,working on the frescoes, we would be up very late, having enjoyed a glass or two of chianti at the end of the day, but in the morning he would be the first on the scaffolding.

He showed me there is far more to see than you think, and he spoke endlessly about his portraits and had anecdotes about all his sitters. He told me how difficult it had been to paint President Kennedy, for example, because of all the meetings going on all the time. He talked about painting the Queen, and when I painted the Queen myself, we talked about Annigoni.

I continued to show him my work, which he criticised until he died in 1988. He was tremendously full of life and was working right up to the end.

Painter Robbie Wraith was talking to Pamela Coleman


1952 born London

1963 approximately, meets Annigoni

1968 Leaves Stowe school 1969 Invited to study with Annigoni in Florence

1969-79 Working and studying in Florence

1975 First one-man show, in London

1982 Paints portrait of Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie

1995 Elected to Royal Society of Portrait Painters 1997 Accompanies Prince

Charles as official artist on royal tour of South Africa 1998 Paints

portrait of the Queen

2000 Exhibition at Albemarle Gallery, London, where his work is always


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