During 50 sittings for a 1994 portrait of the Princess of Wales, American painter Nelson Shanks and his wife Leona befriend the royal model. As much for Shanks' friendship as his genius, the painting was Diana's favourite image of herself. She hung the canvas at Kensington Palace. Now, its at Althorp, the Spencer ancestral home in Northamptonshire.
Nelson Shanks' oil canvas portrait of Princess Diana
The wistful study by Nelson Shanks captured more than Diana's elegance. It freeze-framed a disillusioned but stoic refugee. "I meant to chronicle a time in history and an exquisite, sensitive soul and what it was enduring," the painter said.
In 50 hours of private settings, Nelson and his wife Leona supported the princess through the heartbreaking dissolution of her marriage by 1994. It also gave the Shankses a rare understanding of the forces driving their friend. Astonished at her isolation and eagerness for diversion, they took Diana to restaurants and art galleries, protected her in ugly paparazzi encounters, entertained her in New York and introduced her to celebrities who became close friends with her; including Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. The Shankses found Diana funny and self-deprecating. "One night I admired her Chanel shoes. She pointed out the double C logo and said: 'I call these my Charles and Camilla shoes." In restaurants, she would offer her credit card and try to pay. She would say: "It's all right. Charles owes me a lunch."
"It was a painful time for Diana. At every turn, somebody was accusing her of something. She was getting astonishingly little support. Charles had just done that TV interview in which he'd admitted adultery but failed to mention that he'd ever loved her. I think she was more hurt by this omission than by anything he did say. At this stage, she would have taken him back in a heartbeat. She remained in love with him, or with an idea of him. It took her a long time to realize it was over," said Nelson. "She would be sitting, posing, and suddenly you'd see she'd be thinking of something painful. Her face flushed and tears welled up in her eyes. She often arrived to the studio crying," added Leona.
Because her emerald skirt had to stay draped on a mannequin, Diana posed in her blouse and slip during the settings at Shanks' studio
Shanks' portrait of a lady begun in Kensington Palace. "Leona and I waited in the drawing room, surrounded by some of the Queen's great paintings. I expected a demure princess but suddenly there was this thundering of feet through the house, it was Diana, so alive and athletic. I bowed, Leona curtseyed and called her Your Highness," she said: "Let's get this straight, we're going to be friends and you're going to call me Diana. Let's do the sittings at your place, I want to get out of here," Diana decided.
The first task was to choose a dress for the portrait. Diana was reluctant to show her wardrobe. "I'm sorry, it's so big," she said. "An embarrassment of riches, one after another, all in pastels, I don't like painting that sort of thing. We chose a low-cut cocktail dress, I was doing my first sketch and I knew I did not want it. The image was shallow, not lasting," recalls Shanks. "I said I'm interested in a white blouse. She didn't have one but by the next day they'd got 20 of them. She put on this Starzewski one and she looked out of this universe. It was more than just a blouse. In it, she was ethereal, she glowed," he added. For the skirt, couturier Catherine Walker draped a green taffeta on a mannequin.
Diana smiles to the camera while Shanks paints in the art studio
"Diana had a beautiful neck and I asked if she had a choker," she said: "Would Queen Mary's emeralds do?" The emeralds were huge and Diana insisted on leaving them in the studio overnight, which was a nightmare for Nelson. Diana did all her sittings in the Starzewski blouse and her petticoat. "She was not at all shy. She was mature and professional," approved Nelson.
After the painting was complete, Diana wrote regularly to Nelson and Leona, until her untimely death in 31 August 1997.