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Sara Leighton of Southwater

Sara Leighton

I was born in London in 1937. My mother, June Ashley, was an actress and my father was a theatrical agent, so I was born into theatre.

I had red hair and blue eyes, so when I was five my father said ‘you look like an actress, you should be an actress’ and packed me off to drama school. I went to Aida Foster Stage School, where the likes of Jean Simmons had studied.

When I was 14, I pulled a stroke on my father. I had my tonsils out and I looked dreadful and said ‘Daddy, there is something I want.’ He said: ‘What is it, Darling?’ I said ‘I want to leave school’ and he was true to his word. I gave up the academic side but continued studying dance, acting and singing.

I ended up playing Wendy in Peter Pan for two years, and I was in Annie, Get Your Gun when I was 12. Things progressed, but I couldn’t bear the whole casting couch process of ‘show us your legs dear’. As it happened, an opportunity came up for me to go to South Africa as the Juvenile Leader in a Repertory company. My mum was dubious about me going but it was something I wanted to do.

When I was growing up, it was art that interested me more than anything. But I felt that, if I was being made to be an actress, I should at least learn how to do it properly, and joining a Repertory seemed a good way to do that.

At that time I was engaged to Gareth Davies, who would go on to become very successful in Hollywood as he produced Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He asked me how I could go to Africa having just got engaged and I said ‘well, if you love me as much as you say you do, perhaps you should follow me!’ He did just that! He became our leading man and stage director.

Whilst travelling to Johannesburg for a show in 1954, an express train hit us head on. I’m terribly ashamed to say that, having been thrown out of my bunk bed, I went straight for my box of mascara. I had no idea how serious the crash was as somebody had told me we had stopped for water! It was only when Gareth rushed down the train to find me that we left the train and saw that there were bodies everywhere.

Somebody gave me a little African girl and said ‘she can’t last very long’. She was a beautiful child but she died right there, in my arms.

When I returned to England everything changed, as I had decided I wanted to be an artist. I did a little more acting. I was in The Woman Eater in 1958, which has become a cult movie. I was eaten by a tree. The movie poster of me being attacked by this tree has become quite popular, and I’m hoping to get hold of one and put it up in the loo!

A friend called Beverley Pick, who was one of London’s leading designers, enrolled me at St Martin’s to study art. Gareth and I had a baby, Ashley, and I was already painting and selling a few pictures. I remember in my first class there was an enormous woman lying their naked. The chap next to me couldn’t bear to look, so was only drawing her foot!

I had fallen in love with the work of the Italian master Pietro Annigoni. I would have cleaned his paintbrushes if it meant I could watch him work. One day, an artist friend was painting me when Annigoni walked in.

When he heard that I also painted, he said that he would like to see my work. I said ‘No, you really wouldn’t!’ He said ‘Let me be the judge of that. Let me visit your studio’. I was worried, as I knew he was temperamental and had strongly criticised the work of others and reduced one girl I knew to tears.’

Annigoni told me: ‘You will do quite well. But you will never be a great painter unless you come to Florence and study with me.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was divorced by this time. Gareth was a wild Welshman; a great man, but we were very different. We have remained friends all of our lives and he has done fantastically well. Our daughter, Ashley, works in the Art department on Grey’s Anatomy.

Florence was an incredible experience. People used to say Annigoni was mean, but he used to take me out for dinner every night and it was a great time. He produced a life-size portrait of me and I believe the original is in a museum in Milan. At the time, he was offered £7,000 for it, which was a lot of money then, but he refused to sell. It’s called ‘Sara Solo’ which means Sara Alone.

Looking back on it, perhaps he did fall in love with me.

I had to leave Florence as I could not leave Ashley at home without me for any longer. Before then, I’d painted people like Jeremy Lloyd (TV writer and producer) Yvonne Romain (actress married to composer Leslie Bricusse). I would sometimes be working on ten portraits at a time as I needed the money to support Ashley. But it was my time with Annigoni that really launched my reputation.

Annigoni told me: “A painting should not be of interest just to the subject. It should be interesting to people in 400 years.” So I try and capture a life story in the painting, and I do not let the subject choose the picture that I should work from.

I suppose I was an ‘It Girl’ of sorts. The press would marry me off with whoever I happened to be having dinner with, and I used to have dinner with a lot of people, as I had some incredible friends.

On the day of my first divorce, a showbiz columnist took me to a house in Kensington. He knocked on the door and there was Cary Grant. The reporter said ‘Sara got divorced today’ and Cary said: ‘That’s sad. I’m always sad whenever I get divorced!’ He would take me out whenever he came to England, but it came to the point where he felt something should happen. I liked Cary enormously but I didn’t want to go to bed with him.

In 1966, I did Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 (selecting Sammy Davis Jnr’s Out of This World as a favourite) and I said I would like to paint Fletcher Christian (who led the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789) to see if there is any mark left of the great man. I wanted to find his descendants. So I set off for the South Pacific on a sponsored trip.

This journey took in 33 countries in three months, as I discovered Fletcher had left Pitcairn. At a hotel in New Zealand, the phone rang and a voice says ‘I believe you’re looking for me. I’m Fletcher Christian.’ It turned out he was a leading sportsmen.

Another sportsman I met was Muhammed Ali, as I was asked to take him shopping in London. He told me he had painted an old sailing boat once, and when I suggested he should have continued, he said quite seriously ‘When I do something, I got to be the greatest.’

I turned down the opportunity to paint Ali, as I didn’t feel it was something he could give his full attention at that time. I also turned down the chance to paint Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her fame. She had this enormous entourage and the press followed her everywhere.

I became something of a media personality and was a ‘celebrity guest’ (which is a ridiculous title) on a number of television shows. I was a guest on Parkinson and I was often on antique programmes, which later led to a column in The Telegraph.

I married a jazz pianist, Benjamin Waters, and we moved from London to Sussex. We had been married for just three weeks when I had the accident.

My first husband, Gareth, had called me one day and said he was involved with a girl from America, a famous bull fighter called Sandra Landry. She was coming over to England and he asked me to show her around. We were on the way for a lunch meeting when we went off the road on a wet morning and hit three cars.

They took one look at me and must have thought I was dead, as they put a sheet over my face. Sandra was groaning at the hospital and I shouted ‘Would you please give her something for the pain!’ and they realised that I was still alive. I was told later that I had been put on the mortuary list!

My legs were smashed to pieces and I needed 56 stitches in my head. The surgeon performed miracles. They didn’t amputate the legs and slowly I walked again, although it was five years before I walked well. 

Sadly, Benjamin was bipolar, and he would be up and down all of the time.  We would split up and then I would take him back, but eventually we divorced. However, we had two children, Tiffany and Dominic, and they lived with me at a house in Kensington.

By 1974, my sister Carole had moved to the Arabian Gulf. With the economic crisis in the UK, I realised that it would be difficult to make much money from portraits, so I packed out bags and headed to Bahrain. Fortunately for me, the Ruler bought lots of my paintings and arranged new commissions.

I was dancing at midnight with Sheikh Yamani, who was one of the Heads of OPEC. He asked me to join him in his homeland of Saudi Arabia and paint under his guardianship. But I didn’t like the sound of Saudi Arabia, so I came back to England after two and a half years.

I hadn’t long since been home when I went to a Conservative Ball at The Lancaster Hotel. It was there that I was asked to do a portrait of Her Majesty, the Queen Mother. I’ve had the most incredible strokes of good luck and the most incredible strokes of bad luck. But I like it that way. The only thing that could have given me a nervous breakdown was total peace and quiet.

The painting was to be the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday portrait. I had lunch with her Equerry and said ‘I don’t want to do a stiff Royal portrait’ and he said ‘Thank God for that, we have a corridor of stiff Royal portraits.’ I wanted to capture the grandmother of the nation. I followed her around for several months with a sketchbook and drew her as she worked.

She liked it very much as it was so informal. It’s a fresco on plaster, and the original is life-size. She had a very soft face and I wanted to reflect that. She took my hand and said ‘You’re such a clever girl’ and that meant everything to me!

Over the years I had painted many people, including Michael Caine and Virginia McKenna, although this painting was stolen whilst I was in the Gulf. But in 1985 I painted Margaret Thatcher.

My autobiography, Of Savages and Kings, was published in 1980. I went on Start the Week on Radio 4 and had a bit of a spat with Janet Street-Porter. She ripped into the book because some African names had been spelt incorrectly!

I had married Michael by this time, and we’ve now been together for 33 years. He joined me at Chequers when I painted Lady Thatcher. She was a nightmare to paint as her head was always moving around. I put Michael into her eye line and she liked that as she seemed to relate better to men!

She took us around the house and there were portraits on the walls of the former Prime Ministers. There was only one in colour, and that was James Callaghan. She said: ‘Poor Jim, he’ll fade you know.’

Tiffany grew up to be a very beautiful girl and we were very close. I would paint her all the time. She grew up and had a daughter, Ziggy, but then she was diagnosed with cancer. She died 18 months later, and I was left to look after Ziggy.

I think Ziggy saved me from insanity. She is like her mother in many ways but when she was six she reminded me that she is not Tiffany, and that helped our relationship. I live in Southwater now and I’m surrounded by family, which is lovely.

Looking back, I would never would I say I was a great artist. Only other people can judge that. I was only as good as I could be.

Michelangelo dropped dead the night before his 90th birthday, but I’d prefer to drop dead the night before my 100th birthday. There is so much I want to paint and write before that time comes. I’m working on a novel about Holbein, and I’ve also written a series of poems.

There is still so much that I want to do, but now I know that I have to do it in a certain amount of years.