John Castle: Artist and Swan Upper

By Peter Darley

We had a close friendship with the artist John Castle through the late 1980s and 1990s. He lived for much of this time next door at 20 Oppidans Road, and would drop over frequently, white wine bottle in hand. It left a large hole in our lives when he died in 1999.

John was born in New Zealand in 1936 and initially followed his father into business, his family owning a chain of pharmacies. He gave this up to follow a much more precarious destiny as a full-time artist from 1970. This, and his love of jazz, took him to New Orleans and a lengthy sojourn on Mississippi paddle boats to sketch the performing musicians.

In 1990 John Castle was given permission by her Majesty the Queen to go behind the scenes of the most notable royal occasions. Given unprecedented access, he was able to create a lasting artistic record of the monarchy and its role at the centre of Britain’s heritage. Working non-stop for two years, patiently recording events in thousands of sketches, he produced a unique and strikingly beautiful record of the royal calendar. This record is captured in his 1992 book Royal Occasions. His paintings appear in many collections, including that of King Charles III.

It will be apparent that John had a strong sense of heritage and tradition, and was a member of the Queen’s swan uppers for many years. Swan upping is the traditional means by which the swans on the Thames are apportioned among the three proprietors: the Crown, the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company. Its main practical purposes today are to conduct a census of swans and check their health. It occurs annually in the third week of July. Over five days, the Queen’s, Vintners’ and the Dyers’ respective swan uppers row up the river in skiffs. Swans caught by the Queen’s swan uppers are left unmarked, except for a lightweight ring linked to the database of the British Trust for Ornithology. On 20 July 2009, Queen Elizabeth II, as ‘Seigneur of the Swans’, attended the swan upping ceremony, the first time that the monarch had personally watched the ceremony in centuries.

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