Meet the Chelsea Pensioners
as a set of their portraits is displayed
The willingness of Chelsea Pensioners to pose for tourists' snaps seems to be issued along with the uniform. The scarlet coat and black cap, eye-catching and photogenic, ensures that they are constantly stopped at public events or out on the Kings Road, and they never turn anyone down.
Now 50 of them have been captured in oils by one of our most respected and prolific portrait painters, June Mendoza. She chose to embark on the project 12 years ago, squeezing in sessions with the old soldiers between the usual royals, politicians and boardroom grandees in her relentless roster of great-and-good commissions.
The resulting portraits now fill a whole wall and show, with luminous clarity, that it would be hard to find a more contented band of oldsters than the residents of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Grizzled, whiskered, rubicund, twinkling, hawk-featured, mischievous: every variety of phiz is represented here including one with long white beard and forearms festooned with tattoos. Alas he's now dead. Since Mendoza started painting them, about half her sitters have died. ("Not surprising - we lose about 45 a year," as Major General Peter Currie, Lieutenant General of the RH, says cheerily. "It's a magnificent place to die.")
The survivors, naturally, were happy to pose in front of their newly hung portraits, when Mendoza cut the ribbon on Thursday. They had all had the Mendoza treatment in two sittings apiece, as she captured likenesses in quick brushstrokes, "darting back and forth to her easel" as Ralph Dickinson (ex 2 Para) described it, "and seeing right into your character."
Mendoza, small and elegant, has been doing portraits since the 1950s when she arrived in London from Australia. She was once an actress and her penchant has been for the arts - divas, maestros, performers - but her commissions have included many lofty military types too. Never daunted by large projects (she did the entire House of Commons in the 1980s) she soon showed the old soldiers who was boss, telling them who could wear hats and which sort.
She talked with them non-stop, but like many old warriors they never spoke of their wars. Their CVs show that the Army took them all over the world - the Middle East, Hong Kong, Egypt, Cyprus, even Venice. After such adventures the transition to civilian life can be tough. "It takes time to get the mindset of the people you have to work with," says Chris Melia, now 85, who became a bursar at the LSE. "I found the civilians out there were a pain in the backside. But as soon as I walked through the gates here, I felt I was coming home."
This is crucial. Pensioners, drawn from the ranks - even if later commissioned - of the British Army, must be "unencumbered by dependant spouse or family", ie widowed, divorced and childless. The RH takes their army pension (but they keep their state pension) provides them with a home and a family, and is run with comfortingly regimental precision.
Joe Britton, 101 this year and the holder of four military medals, is the resident character. In the 1930s he guarded the viceregal lodge in Delhi, and remains mad keen on the horses: he once won £1,000 with a 7-1 bet on Lester Piggott riding Sir Ivor. He clutches a bag of photographs of himself with the Queen Mother and other royals, Anneka Rice and Duncan Mayhew. (As we talked, Paul O'Grady was being filmed outside with Battersea Dogs' Home dogs.)
Winifred Phillips, ex-ATS, 85, enjoys the distinction of having become the first female Pensioner, after a long wait while the facilities were updated to suit a lady. She has written one book about it, and told me, "I've just heard, they've got me a ghost for a second book."
When Wren built the Royal Hospital in 1682 at the request of Charles II "for the succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war", female inmates were unforeseen. And Wren would still recognise his original design of Long Wards - rows of 18 windowless "berths", measuring 9' by 9' on long oak-panelled corridors - where most of the 300 pensioners still live. Ablutions are largely communal, as in an old boarding-school. Gradually these are being replaced by en-suite bedrooms with studies, but the oak corridors will stay: "a brilliant design for living."
New applicants, who come for a four-day recce, may not agree. "It's not everyone's cup of tea," says Major-General Currie. "But for most people it becomes their cup of tea quite quickly." After all, they are surrounded by 65 acres of beautiful well-tended park within the most exclusive postcode in Central London.
It is no secret that another of Mendoza's portrait subjects, Lady Thatcher, after whom their splendid new Infirmary is named, is still a familiar figure here, in chapel or walking the grounds, and has asked to be buried in its graveyard.
"This is life as it should be," says Winifred Phillips. And Kenneth Evgenia, ex-SAS, former blacksmith and farmer, agrees.
Stan Pepper, ex-Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and later commissioned, once worked in local government on the cost of old folks' homes, "So I know you could not find a finer-run or better-equipped care home than this. They'd have to pay £40,000 a year for it on the outside."
The Royal Hospital resolves the commonest complaints of old age: loneliness - it's a community of peers - and invisibility. The scarlet uniform, and ceremonial tricorn hat or everyday shako cap, gets them invited everywhere: Wimbledon, Royal Ascot, Lords, Buckingham Palace garden parties. Today, four of them will be at the England-France rugby match in Paris, travelling by Eurostar and being received by the British Ambassador.
In the new clubhouse (as luxurious as any in St James's) a troop of young soldiers from Abingdon, in civvies, have come to be shown where they might end their days if they play their cards right. When Melia was a young sergeant, he too came here, to escort some of the pensioners on holiday to Germany. He noticed at once that all doors opened for them. "Even the traffic stops for you. Taxi drivers often give you free rides."
In return, they lead guided tours, do charitable work, visit soup kitchens and night shelters and prisons, visiting ex-soldiers, young and old, whose lives have gone awry. "Yes, there are many ex-servicemen in prison," says the RH adjutant, Colonel Simon Bate, "and it gives the pensioners a chance to be mentors. It's a two-way relationship."
Major-General Currie sees the public affection for the pensioners as "the ultimate expression of the Covenant which our government is keen to talk about. Seeing pensioners out and about in scarlet coats has a meaning deeper than most people realise." As reflected in the warmth and spirit of the Mendoza portraits.