‘My soldiers laughed at me for making art on tour – then Queen Elizabeth hired me’

Freddy Paske in his studio in Oxfordshire, where he lives with his pregnant wife - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph
Freddy Paske in his studio in Oxfordshire, where he lives with his pregnant wife - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph

“I’m just sad she never got to see it,” says Freddy Paske. The death of Queen Elizabeth affected most British people. For Paske, who was the Queen’s official Platinum Jubilee Artist in Residence, his year’s work took on a new complexion when she died.

He had been preparing a series of paintings and sculpture inspired by the events surrounding the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, depicted with Paske’s characteristic bright colours and sense of movement. Whatever the event, Paske was there, usually dressed in a neat bowler hat and suit, diligently sketching and daubing. There are soldiers on parade, royal processions, cavalrymen standing proud, many horses. The paintings would be displayed in an exhibition that starts on Nov 22. Paske hoped to be able to show his work to Her Majesty.

“The collection was built around her and centred on her passions,” he says. “We were hoping to gift her a sculpture.” In the wake of her death, the exhibition has the feeling of a tribute. “It turned from honouring her to being in memory of her,” he says. “I just hope it is well received.”

After “umming and ahhing” about whether it would be appropriate, Paske began work on two final paintings inspired by the funeral. “I was appointed for the Jubilee, but in the end we decided that I was her last appointment and her last artist-in-residence. The pictures will be unframed, but they’ll be in the exhibition.”

For Paske, this year represented the culmination of a career in which service and art have gone hand in hand. He was born in 1986, the son of Tim, a former household cavalryman who went into insurance, and Lucinda, an occasional chef. Freddy has a younger sister, Arabella. The family spent Freddy’s first three years living in a cottage on his grandparents’ estate in Hampshire, a time he remembers fondly.

“There was a ‘ride before you can walk’ mentality, which was quite daunting when you’re three,” he says, over tea and pork pie at his home in Oxfordshire. His landlords are the Astors, Samantha Cameron’s parents. The airy barn conversion he shares with his wife, and shortly their first child, used to be a showroom for Nancy Astor’s furniture company, Oka. “But it was an amazing, Swallows and Amazons-style childhood, running around being feral.” He remembers his two passions being “army and drawing”.

“My dad had loved his time in the military, so the army had always been there,” he says. “I spent hours either drawing helicopters and stuff or running around in camo paint, setting traps for the dog and stuff.”

Freddy Paske model - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph
Freddy Paske model - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph

Three events in quick succession spoiled this idyll. First, his grandparents had to sell their house. Then his parents divorced. Finally, in 1995, when Freddy was nine, Lucinda was killed in a car crash.

“I was too young to process it,” he says. “I remember being very sad, and there being this loss which you can’t fathom. But part of being that age is you just accept everything. Right, fine, you’re divorcing? Cool. Mum’s died? Right, fine. It was par for the course. It was very much ‘On to the next thing. Mum’s not here.’ It’s funny, it was only in my late 20s did I reflect on it and we started having proper conversations as a family. That helped.”

Freddy and Arabella were raised by Tim and his new partner, Georgie. “She was a hero,” Freddy says. “She took on two ready-made kids whose mother had just died. It was a huge ask.”

The family moved around. Freddy was sent to board at the Dragon School in Oxford, where he says he was “terribly homesick”. “I had this dread of going back on a Sunday evening. I think I just had so much stuff I needed to process, so the homesickness was an outlet, something I could focus on.”

Another outlet, he quickly discovered, was art. “The school art department was incredible,” he says. “We did clay, painting, etching. I just took to it. It was something I could get into. I loved drawing and people told me I was good at it.

“Also, I was atrocious at sport,” he laughs. “So I did anything I could to not be there. Art was a way I could be good at something rather than fail at throwing a ball around a pitch. And I wasn’t academic at all. I had a few skills to my name. So art became the focus.” The school encouraged him to apply for an art scholarship to Harrow, which he got. There, the story was the same. “Art was my focus. I remember investing all my time in art, dodging sport, anything to get out of it and get back to art.”

Harrow also introduced him to the military through their CCF (Combined Cadet Force) programme. Despite his lack of sportiness, he turned out to be “really good” at the assault course. “It was the first chance I’d had to play an army role, and it was exactly like I hoped.” It gave him the idea of joining. He applied for, and got, an army scholarship, which paid for his degree – an art foundation at Oxford Brookes and then an Art History degree at Leeds – on the understanding he would go to Sandhurst afterwards.

“I never wanted to do art as a career, but I thought it would be brilliant to do art at university and then go and get a proper job,” he says. At Leeds he was taught by Griselda Pollock, a feminist art historian who he says grounded him in the “patriarchical nature of art history, and how it has been dominated by the male gaze”. He dropped out of the university Officer Training Corps when he realised he had a place anyway. “The other students were quite intrigued by me,” he says. “A lot of people were like: ‘Why would you do that?’”

Freddy Paske in his studio - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph Magazine
Freddy Paske in his studio - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph Magazine

After seven years of being focused on art, he turned up on the steps of Sandhurst, where he was plunged into the usual wet, cold, exhausting life of the new cadet. He was commissioned into the Light Dragoons, which he joined because they were going to Afghanistan. “I really wanted to go to Afghanistan,” he says. “My father had been in the Household Cavalry and he was mortified. He didn’t speak to me for three days.”

He was introduced to his troop, where met his Troop Sergeant, Lee Davidson, who showed him the ropes. In 2012 they all deployed to Helmand, where they were charged with doing reconnaissance around Grishk, in the centre of the province. “We had a very good tour,” Paske says. “It was amazing, doing the job you’ve always wanted to do.

“It was an amazingly simple life,” he adds. “It was just your blokes and your job. There were immense times of boredom, watching the desert and smoking two packs of dodgy cigarettes a day, and then five per cent of absolute terror and enjoyment when you’re controlling a firefight. I was horribly worried about not having a firefight, but luckily – or unluckily – there were firefights. But everyone walked away.”

Tours usually lasted six months, but after five months Paske came home to take up a teaching position. It was after he left, on Sept 9, a patrol vehicle was hit by an IED. Sgt Davidson was killed.

“He was our only casualty of the whole tour,” Paske says. “Everyone else walked away, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had a wife and kids. It was really sad. I’m glad I wasn’t there but I wish I was there at the same time.” Paske regrets not being more present for Sgt Davidson’s family. Military rules stipulate there should be a single point of contact with the bereaved family, a duty that fell to Paske’s successor.

“I wished I’d done more,” Paske says. “We went through training together. I hated leaving the theatre, and leaving the guys. I was going to do a cushy training role in Harrogate. The guys were grizzing it out in a warzone and here I was doing the next stage of my career.

“It upsets me when I hear politicians speak about Afghanistan as a waste of life,” he says. “Sgt Davidson’s was not a lost life. It’s a terrible loss for his family. But we were sent to do a job, and he was doing his job impeccably. The people I feel most sorry for are the Afghans. Children have grown up knowing nothing but war. All the good work we were doing, like putting girls in schools, has just reverted back to how it was before.”

As well as the moments of terror, life in Afghanistan provided plenty of opportunity for Paske to exercise his artistic muscles. “I thought it would be fun to have a sketchbook of my time there, so I’d sketch in my downtime,” he says. “The lads were quite intrigued. They’re all northerners, so it’s just brilliant. They were constantly taking the p---. For some reason there’s a culture of loving the eccentricity of officers. There’s almost a competition for whose officer is most eccentric. Lots of them loved being in the paintings. I’d put snipers out, and they make good subjects because they lie still for such long periods. So I’d be doing a beautiful landscape with them in it, and they’re there as protection, too.”

Freddy Paske studio - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph
Freddy Paske studio - Vikram Kushwah for The Telegraph

Halfway through the tour, an artist called Lynne Moore embedded with the Light Dragoons. Seeing Paske’s work, she invited him to show some of his work at her Afghan exhibition, which was at the Cavalry and Guards Club on Piccadilly. “I think I had about six or seven small paintings among her beautiful landscapes,” he laughs. “But they sold out. That was the first moment I realised people might be willing to pay for my art.

After that he bounced around the army doing various different jobs, going to Kenya and Bosnia, before he left for good. After being rejected for a job with Sir Jackie Stewart, he gave himself three months to try to make art work as a career. He realised he needed a subject matter to focus on, and settled on horses. “I approached the Household Cavalry and asked if he could be their resident artist for a year and amazingly they said yes,” he said. “Then I did the same thing to the Jockey Club and Tattershall’s [the horse auctioneers]. Even if you don’t love horses, a picture of horses is a traditionally English thing to have on your wall.” He travelled the world, painting racecourses in Dubai, Andalusia and St Moritz.

In 2021, the Household Cavalry asked Paske about becoming their resident artist for the Platinum Jubilee year. Accepting the offer, he noticed that other equine royal institutions were going to be prominent during the celebrations. “I wrote to the Crown Equerry, Toby Browne, who runs the Royal Mews and said ‘I’d love to be your artist in residence, too,’” he says. “He replied that the decision had to go before the Queen. I ran home and put together a portfolio. He showed it to the Queen. Toby’s one of those charming old-school English gents. I don’t think he’s ever exaggerated anything in his life. He just said ‘Freddy, you’ll be delighted to know the Queen has approved the role’.”

After that he approached the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery, explaining he was doing the Royal Mews and the Household Cavalry, and they said yes too. With his royal horse trio secured, he asked if he might tweak the role to call himself the artist in residence during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. They agreed.

“Like everyone, I was shocked when she died, even though it was expected at some stage,” he says. “But it was amazing seeing not just the whole country but the whole world pay their respects.”

One of his new paintings is of the funeral procession, the other of her lying in state. “It was an honour from the start,” he says. “And it hits home knowing I was the final artist in residence. I hope people enjoy the exhibition as much as I’ve enjoyed creating it, and that it conjures memories of a great year and an incredible monarch.”