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Left Hanging : Budget Crisis Puts Prince Charles’ Art Show on Hold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, bother .

Just as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum is preparing to open a show today of watercolor paintings by His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales, this infernal American budget crisis closes the place.

Pity, really.

Marilyn Morrison, the museum’s assistant curator , seemed quite taken by the prince’s brush strokes, his firm command of light.

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And museum spokeswoman Lynda Schuler was ever so anxious that interested guests must be turned away at the gate until this funding nonsense is resolved.

Still, hope was aloft that the American President might sign the treasury funding bill over the weekend. That would reopen--among other things--the National Archives, which encompass the Reagan library.

So--stiff upper lips and all that--Morrison and Christian Bailey, the curator to the Prince of Wales, kept fiddling with gallery spotlights until they caught his Highness’s gilt-framed work just so .

Here, vermilion sunset washed over a snowy field as seen near Bircham, Norfolk. There, in finicky detail, the prince had sketched early morning sun falling on the towers and turrets of the royal residence at Sandringham.

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“Being an art historian, I’m very impressed with his landscape, and his architecture is wonderful,” said Morrison, doffing the white work gloves she was using to adjust hot lights. “He has a great mastery of it . . . I enjoy paintings which occur at this time of day. It reminds me of the Venetian painters, like Titian and Tintoretto.”

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Prince Charles has been painting for about 20 years in the rare lulls between world tours and royal vacations, said Bailey, whose job is to oversee display and storage of the prince’s own work and private art collection.

He finishes perhaps 20 watercolors a year.

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But only recently did the prince begin showing them after friends pressed him into it, Bailey said. They “managed to get him to get the picture that people would not just come because the artist was the Prince of Wales, but because the Prince of Wales was an artist.”

The Reagan library show--if the colonial budget combatants ever deign to fund its opening--also offers glimpses into the royal technique.

In a photo, the prince perches on a campstool in tall grass with brush and paints in hand and eyeglasses dangling from his pursed lips, squinting at his distant subject.

On the gallery wall, a quote from a published collection of Prince Charles’ work weighs the challenges of rendering the regal residences:

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“Until I tried to paint Sandringham, I thought Balmoral [in Scotland] was difficult enough,” he writes. “But Sandringham is in a league of its own, as I discovered the moment I started to draw the house.

“It is a veritable minefield of gables, bow windows, parapets, balustrades, towers, cupolas and gigantic chimneys . . . . I made life more difficult for myself by selecting a pretty impossible angle from which to do the painting.”

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As Morrison carefully aimed spotlights at the prince’s paintings, Bailey fussed with a light meter, measuring the glare. Not enough light would obscure the watercolors, while too much could fade them permanently.

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“45, 48, 49,” Bailey intoned, reading off the meter’s gauge as Morrison fought to keep the reading under 50 lux. “Oh, that’s good, we’re in by a whisker. Providing it doesn’t falter one iota, we’re fine.”

Bailey’s 3 1/2 years as Prince Charles’ curator and 10 years earlier as a curator to the royal art collection at Windsor Castle have given her a discerning eye--and an intimate understanding of his Highness’s artistic tastes and skills.

The prince usually roughs out his subject in pencil, then lays on watercolor fairly quickly, Bailey said. Once the paint is down, it must be perfect or the prince has to start a new one--there is no erasing or correcting watercolors, she said.

Light on his subjects changes quickly too, she said.

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“You’ve got one weather system behind you, one overhead and one on the horizon,” Bailey said. “So you have to be fairly speedy.”

At one point in 1993, Prince Charles stepped off the plane in Mexico City, where he was greeted by a dazzling sunset over snow-tipped Mount Popocatepetl.

“He dropped everything, ran for his painting bag and did it in the hour that was available before his first engagement,” she said.

But all of his Highness’s hurry will be for naught until the American President and Congress settle their disputes. The Reagan library must remain closed until the treasury bill is signed.

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“We’re just a little disappointed,” said Schuler. Then she added hopefully, “But the exhibit will open some time in the next three or four days, and it’ll be up through Jan. 7.”


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