I asked him whether he would be up in London for the Remembrance service that Sunday and he told me he would be, and that he always took part in the procession through Whitehall to the Cenotaph. He explained to me that he had been in the Parachute Regiment during the war, and that he had lied about his age to get into the force. I remember being very impressed on hearing that for his eightieth birthday he had done a sky-dive for charity. I only found out years later that he had in fact risen to the rank of Colonel.
I was very happy with the duffel coat which was a sort of charcoal grey with a light grey tartan lining. Before I left I told Mr Williams that I was a painter and asked him if he would mind if I paint his portrait. He said he wouldn’t mind at all, and so I returned the next day to take some photographs and to make some quick sketches.
I was hoping to get the painting finished within a year, but it happened that I was just about to enter into a very busy part of my life, changing between jobs and careers while also being quite busy with commissioned work. I took a PGCE in the next year and then immediately began working full-time running an art department in a local school. Over the next six years I just couldn’t seem to make headway with the painting, either because I was working on a paid commission which had a deadline, or because the amount of school work prevented me from doing so. His kind face spent some time over the next few years in the studio at school, where the pupils regularly asked who he was and why he had so many ties, and he also spent time at my parents' house before taking up residence in the studio/spare room at my flat. Wherever he was, Mr Williams always had an effect on people; his kindly expression seemed to move everyone that saw the painting. When my girlfriend moved in with me, she often commented on how much she liked Mr Williams and that the painting brought a warm presence to the flat. Friends and colleagues frequently asked me: “And how is Mr Williams coming along?”
I finally finished the portrait this year. I was understandably a little nervous about taking the picture to the store to see Mr Williams again. I wondered to myself: “What if he doesn’t remember me and wonders why I have a painting of him? What if he hates it?” I went to the store with my girlfriend and was greatly relieved when Mr Williams said to me “So you have finished my portrait!” with a warm smile. He was very pleased with the painting and asked if I would print off a photograph of it for him to show his wife. I said I would of course. He asked me how long this would take. “Not very long”, I told him, "I'll probably be able to get it done this afternoon." “Not in six years then?” he said with a cheeky grin.
Judith Johnson recently posted a blog interview with Ralph Williams. To read the blog follow the link below: