Obituary: Leonard Boden

NOTHING IN Leonard Boden's background pointed to his becoming one of the most notable British portrait painters of the last 50 years. He did not stem from a family of artists and had no strong social connections, yet he was to become a favourite and frequent painter of royal portraits - as well as the Pope, and many operatic and stage celebrities.

Successful men often rely on a supportive wife. In Boden's case this was especially true, for without the painting skills of his wife, Margaret, much of his work would never have been completed. His name was on the pictures, but theirs was a joint operation. In his final years it grieved Boden that, while he was a respected member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, his wife had never been elected.

By his death, Boden was a noted art-world figure. He was a freeman of the City of London, a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers, a vice-president of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution and a gold medallist of the Paris Salon. As chairman of Chelsea Arts Club in the 1960s he was known for his gentle humour, probably honed by a love of reading P.G. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley.

Boden was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, in 1911. His father John had co-founded Rowan & Boden, a company which furnished ships such as the Clyde-built Cunard liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. After school at Sedbergh, Leonard might have been expected to follow his much older brothers Ernest, who became chairman, and Sydney into the family firm. But, as he had shown a strong aptitude for drawing and painting, his father and mother accepted his wish to be an artist.

He joined Glasgow School of Art, his teachers including that notable portraitist William Oliphant Hutchison, Francis Hodge, John D. Revel and Frederic Whiting. There he met his future wife, Margaret Tulloch, and like her went on to Heatherley's School of Fine Art in London. To make a living in the 1930s, Boden and his wife did book illustration, book- jackets and advertising. He edged towards portrait painting when called on to sketch the subject of interviews, such as the conductor Sir John Barbirolli.

During the Second World WarBoden was an ack-ack gunner, served at a prisoner- of-war camp in Comrie, Perthshire, not far from his home, and in intelligence. The breakthrough into full-time portraiture came soon after demobilisation, when he established a word-of-mouth reputation for his depictions of notable thespians such as Alastair Sim and Sir Donald Wolfit. He also painted his first portrait of the singer Boris Christoff as Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky's opera. A larger portrait is in the National Theatre Museum.

It was a happy association of twin interests, painting and opera. Boden's father had been a passionately keen promoter of music in Scotland, including appearances by Sir Thomas Beecham and Dame Eva Turner. Leonard was brought up on opera, and, as well as Christoff, numbered among his friends Eva Turner, Sir Geraint Evans and Tito Gobbi.

In 1954, Boden's career as a portrait painter advanced with his first large-scale commission, Field Marshal Lord Milne. A string of portraits of distinguished men and women in the worlds of industry, commerce, medicine, the armed forces, politics and the arts followed over the next 40 years. They included three Lord Mayors of London - Sir Peter Gadsden, Sir Murray Fox and Sir Ralph Ferring - as well as Field Marshal Lord Slim, Lord Wakefield of Kendal, the Marquess of Linlithgow, Sir George Pinker, Sir James Cameron, Baroness Thatcher and his close friend Donald Sinden.

In 1957, Boden had the rare chance to paint a reigning Pope. It was the only portrait for which Pius XII granted sittings. There were 14, at Castelgandolfo, the Pope's summer palace, and in Rome, where the Pope asked for it to be hung in the Vatican. The final portrait has great presence, stemming from a series of relaxed sittings during which Boden and the pontiff chatted in English. Boden believed that conversation animated the sitter, helping to reveal the personality.

It was a technique that he employed with marked success in his 19 royal portraits. The series was to include 10 of the present Queen and five of the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as portraits of the Queen Mother, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Kent. His method was to sketch the sitter first in sanguine chalk, next painting in oil on canvas. Often sitters asked to buy these lifelike original sketches. Undoubtedly the most distinguished series of his portraits is the 10 of the Queen, remembered by his daughter, Daphne, as "a wonderful person, a favourite subject". The first, completed in 1957, showed the monarch in the robes of the Order of the Bath. A companion portrait of Prince Philip hangs with it at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Boden made several copies of his portraits of the Queen. On one occasion there was a Canadian request for these, and four were painted for government establishments. Asked if she would prefer any particular artist's depictions of her, the Queen named Boden, and, gratifyingly for him, she asked if they would make that clear to him.

Boden would chat with the Queen about art, music and her own special interests, horses and dogs. A diversion on several occasions was the introduction of his daughter Daphne, who became a distinguished musician - the first British harpist to be awarded the Premier Prix for Harp at the Brussels Royal Conservatoire and professor of harp at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. Daphne played for the Queen while her father painted.

For a royal portrait Boden would request six to eight sittings, each of about an hour and a half. The Queen was always willing to grant an extra one if Boden needed it, but he never did. Work would then be done on the portrait in the Queen's absence, and it was here that Boden's wife's contribution was vital. "Who did what?" I asked Daphne. "The Queen asked the same question," she says, "and was told that it was a state secret!"

Leonard Monro Boden, painter: born Greenock, Renfrewshire 31 May 1911; married 1937 Margaret Tulloch (one daughter); died London 3 November 1999.