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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND : A Princely Hobby : Reagan Library Offers Glimpse of Paintings by His Royal Highness Charles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An item that didn’t make tabloid headlines: Prince Charles . . . paints.

And for the record, he paints better than President Clinton plays the saxophone. Much better.

An exhibit of the Prince’s watercolors is on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. The 40 watercolors represent more than an Anglophile novelty or noble vanity. The landscapes--especially those of the British Isles--reflect a unique connection to a land with which his name is synonymous.

Prince Charles took up painting 25 years ago and that--along with polo--has been his hobby of choice since. A brief attempt at photography left him disappointed, he wrote in the introduction to his 1991 book, “Watercolours,” because the result was likely identical to somebody else’s photograph.

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Paintings, on the other hand, allow him to convey more personal impressions. “It requires the most intense concentration and, consequently, is one of the most relaxing and therapeutic exercises I know,” the Prince wrote.

The paintings are installations in a sort of personal photo album. One wouldn’t think of humility as a royal attribute, but no one seems more surprised than Prince Charles himself that anyone wants to look at his “sketches.”

A caption he wrote for “Watercolours” says that one painting “looks much better if you put if against the back of a chair and look at it through a pair of binoculars from a considerable distance.”

Certainly there is an audience for all things royal. This is the Prince’s second exhibit in the United States, and his paintings also have been displayed in Korea, Japan and Italy--a far reach for the self-proclaimed amateur painter.

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“He’s very acutely aware that he doesn’t have the proper time to do it. He’s an amateur in the best sense of the word,” says Christian Bailey. As curator to The Prince of Wales, it is her job to preserve these pieces of royal history.

She accompanied the “sketches” on their flight from London to Los Angeles, and knows each painting down to the crystalline triangle that reveals where the paint froze before drying.

The Prince has almost never displayed his work alongside that of professional artists, says Bailey.

Almost never.

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In 1988, the Prince cut out a detail from a sketch and submitted it for the Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibition. For the submission, he combined the last two initials of his full name--Charles Philip Arthur George--and one of his many titles, Earl of Carrick. A.G. Carrick’s painting of farm buildings in Norfolk was accepted to the prestigious show.

Prince Charles’ ploy broke in the newspapers before the exhibit opened, however. Those who came to see the prince’s work were undoubtedly surprised at its not-so-palatial size: less than four inches square.

Because the prince works almost strictly outdoors--as evidenced by occasional rain-induced pocks in the paint--he works on a portable scale: sketch pad and a small box of watercolors. Sometimes a security officer will carry along a folding chair. Prince Charles first sketches in pencil and then adds the watercolor--a very quick and easily bungled process. Once it’s on the paper, there is no correcting watercolor.

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The paintings often catch the landscape at sunup or sundown--moments when the light and color are unnaturally beautiful, as in the dramatic “Lake Como,” painted in Italy in 1994. His brush has gotten looser and more flowing in his work since 1991. He seems less concerned with filling the whole page with color, leaving a soft-edged, but undoubtedly complete, impression.

Bailey says Prince Charles has only a handful of opportunities to paint each year--primarily when he is on holiday with his children or in residence at one of the royal estates. The bulk of his instruction has been informal. On official royal tours, for example, he will bring along a professional artist and paint with him or her. Still, he produces maybe 20 paintings a year.

But, his curator says, those paintings are getting more respect. “The news people used to send the gossip columnists,” says Bailey. “It’s now become that they stopped bringing the gossip writers and started bringing the art correspondents.”

And now that the prince has an artistic name of his own, what of A.G. Carrick? He lives on as the name of the commercial branch of the Prince of Wales Charities. Any money made from the artwork--from the book or lithographs, which sell for between $4,000 and $10,000--go into the trust.

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So far, the trust, which donates money for disaster relief, health care and environmental issues--has benefited to the tune of 1 million pounds.

People invariably ask if the original paintings are for sale. “And the answer is no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no never,” says Bailey, swaying her head slightly to the rhythm of her rejection. “Not even if you’re a trillionaire who says, ‘Name your price.’ ”

FOR FOTO SLUGGED prince 2

DETAILS

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* WHAT: Watercolor paintings by HRH The Prince of Wales.

* WHERE: The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, 40 Presidential Drive, near Simi Valley.

* WHEN: 10 a.m-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day through Jan. 7.

* HOW MUCH: Admission to the museum is $4 for adults and $2 for senior citizens. Children 15 and under are admitted free.

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* CALL: (805) 522-2977.


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