By Michelle Tauber
October 30, 2000 12:00 PM

Meeting with Prince Charles last year to begin work for a new royal family portrait, artist John Wonnacott admits he initially found the prince, well, “quite stiff. He’s a very serious man who takes a long time to relax.” Wonnacott had planned to reflect that in his portrait. Then one day Charles “came bounding in and was all smiles” upon spotting his grandmother, the Queen Mum. “At that moment I changed my mind,” says Wonnacott. “I forced him to pose with a big smile on his face.”

Big might be a stretch. The prince is, in public at least, no barrel of giggles. But Wonnacott’s new portrait, recently unveiled to honor the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday, succeeds in capturing not just a beaming Charles but such a surprisingly relaxed royal family that even the Queen’s corgis appear to be smiling. “I wanted it to seem as if they had all just walked in from their various activities,” says Wonnacott, 60, of the 12-ft.-by-8-ft. portrait he completed over the course of a year and a half. Now on display at London’s National Portrait Gallery, the work, says curator Honor Clerk, “is warm and modern, without losing that grandeur.” (Though not everyone is crazy about those corgis; says London art gallery owner Johnny Messum: “They look like Itchy and Scratchy from The Simpsons.”)

Although Wonnacott had been better known for his landscapes, his keen eye for portraying family life won him the job of depicting the royals, whose packed schedules prevented them from posing together. Instead, Wonnacott sketched each family member separately and later combined the images in one scene. A total of seven sittings were required to capture Prince William, who initially objected to being in the painting’s foreground. “He found it difficult being singled out to be the biggest figure,” recalls Wonnacott, who lives in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, with his wife, Anne, 51. (The couple have three children, Elizabeth, 22, Zofja, 19, and Jack, 5.) “I said, ‘I’m sorry, William, that’s your role in life. You’ll always be on your own and in front.’ ” As for Prince Harry, who sports a casual T-shirt and jeans, “he’s a mischievous little imp, full of energy,” says Wonnacott.

Overall, Wonnacott was struck by the family’s warmth. “The boys told me teasing jokes about their father in the way boys are about their father when they love him,” he says. So did the Queen herself, whom Wonnacott characterizes as “a jolly person.” But he most enjoyed working with the Queen Mum. “If I could be like that at 100, I would be a very happy man,” declares the artist.

And how did the Windsors feel about Wonnacott’s work? “The Queen Mother let it be known that she thought it was particularly good of the boys,” he notes proudly.

Michelle Tauber

Simon Perry in London