Middle Sackville artist Christian Corbet says he woke up this morning to about 200 messages from members of the Canadian military as well as friends and distant relations including a couple of Winston Churchill’s grandchildren.
The messages were about the death of Prince Philip whom Corbet met in 2013 when he was commissioned to create a bronze bust of the Duke of Edinburgh for the Royal Canadian Regiment in honour of Philip’s 60 years as its colonel-in-chief.
“I’m sad,” Corbet says. “He told me that he would never make his 100th birthday…I believe that he just knew.”
Corbet says that getting the commission to create a bust of Prince Philip was a big break for him as a portrait artist.
“I requested a life sitting [but] didn’t know if that was going to happen,” he says.
Buckingham Palace responded by asking for examples of Corbet’s work.
“So, I sent two of my best busts and within 48 hours they approved me.”
When Corbet eventually arrived at the Palace, he was a bit apprehensive.
“Before you go in, you have a briefing and you sit down with the equerry,” Corbet says.
“The biggest thing I was not warned about, but maybe cautioned about, was that if he doesn’t take well to the sitting, basically if he doesn’t like you, he might just stand up and leave.”
Corbet needn’t have worried.
The Prince shook his hand and turned out to be extremely knowledgeable about art.
“The first room I worked in was his man cave, the worn-out Eames-era furniture and the dusty books on the shelves, pictures of his mom, his dad and his sisters. He offered for me to take a book on an architect home, ‘Return it next week when you see me,’ and how do you say no to that?”
Corbet estimates there were about 1,000 books on the shelves, including art catalogues and many about nature and the environment.
“I pointed out a book by my friend, Jane Goodall and said that I had done her portrait many years before and he said that he had met her and loved her and he said, ‘Well, have you read the book?’ and I said I’d read it several times. And I said, ‘Did you read the book?’ and he smiled and said, ‘I’ve read every book in here.'”
Corbet says Philip was a man who did not waste his life.
“He was the first Royal Family member to have a television series on environment on the BBC, which was way ahead of its time and that was in the 1960s.”
Corbet says he directed the then 92-year-old Prince to sit in a chair while he circled around it taking the first of more than 300 photos.
“And he goes, ‘If you keep on going around me like this, you’re going to end up under my desk and then he started to laugh and he goes, ‘Here you sit back down here and let me do this for you.'”
Philip took the chair by its wooden arms and started jumping it around in a full circle as Corbet continued taking photos.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘I think you’re showing off’ and he goes, ‘I don’t have much to show off for anymore, but he said, ‘This is it, now you’ve got it.'” Corbet laughed as he recalled the scene.
“I loved that because it showed his physical prowess.”
A royal invitation
Corbet says Philip said “Sure” when he offered to show him a few of the better photos he had taken.
“He comes over to the table and I opened up my portfolio and I lay out five photographs and I said to him, ‘Sir, would you be so kind as to consider signing this for me?”
Corbet says that he noticed the equerry standing in the doorway shaking his head furiously.
“And Prince Philip says, ‘Do you have a pen?’ and I said, “Well I do,’ and he said, ‘You would, wouldn’t you,'” Corbet says.
“The equerry said to me afterwards, ‘You’re bloody lucky because he usually gets very angry at that, he goes, ‘He must have liked you’ and I said, ‘Well, I liked him.'”
Corbet remembers that as he and the Prince were parting, Philip said he’d be in Toronto in a few months and asked if Corbet would join him for breakfast.
“And I did,” Corbet adds. “What an incredible story really, the artist and the prince. It’s a short novel, isn’t it?”