Since childhood, Kate held a keen interest in arts, crafts and painting. An interest that saw her leave Marlbrough College with an A level in art achieving a grade A result. 18-year-old Kate had done herself proud and her well above average results meant she could choose from a number of prestigious universities. At that stage, she knew she wanted to study history of art and was seriously considering new university Oxford Brookes (originally founded in Victorian times as the Oxford School of Art). The course had an excellent reputation and was a mere 40 minute drive from the Middleton family home in Bucklebury. Edinburgh University (which Pippa and James Middleton would later attend) also caught Kate's eye and she successfully secured a spot there, however, she elected to take a gap year instead.
Undoubtedly, Kate's love of art formed a large part of her decision to spend several months of her gap year in Florence where she undertook a twelve-week course at the British Institute. Renaissance lectures were held daily and many an afternoon was spent exploring the magnificent sights and scenic squares, camera in hand.
In 2001, 19-year-old Kate Middleton accepted a place at Scotland's St Andrew's University, known for its school of art history and in September of that year she began the next chapter of her life. Not only was she thrilled to be studying in her chosen area, but her wish to pursue art would also see her meet a certain prince :) Studious Kate is said to have immersed herself in the course where modules included art history, modern languages, history, classics, philosophy and social anthropology. For her final year dissertation, a growing interest in photography led her to write about the photography of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, entitled 'Angels from Heaven: Lewis Carroll's Photographic Interpretation of Childhood'. Kate graduated with an upper second-class degree in history of art in 2005.
Irish artist Gemma Billington was a neighbour of the Middletons; her children went to the same school as Kate, and Gemma and Carole forged a strong friendship that remains today. Kate is said to have thoroughly enjoyed speaking to Gemma about the creative process behind her work, and in 2007 travelled to Dublin to attend the artist's first solo exhibition at the Urban Retreat Gallery (with thanks to talented photographer Angela Halpin for the kind permission to use her photo of Kate at the event; you can view the full set here).
Smiling for the camera, enjoying the paintings and sipping champagne, little did anyone know Kate was actually going through one of the most difficult periods of her life. Just a week or so before Prince William had called time on their romance; the brief break allowed Kate to gather her thoughts before returning to London where news of their split would soon break and a media frenzy was about to erupt. Below, Kate and Carole leaving their hotel in Dublin.
Gemma Billington shared the following quote in 2007 describing the Middleton family as "very close" and Kate as a "lovely girl", adding: "Kate is a lovely girl who is just one of our kids who just happens to be going out with a boy called William who happens to be a prince. He's just a normal boy, really. Whoever you happen to be going out with, you have to take the rough with the smooth." Gemma was a guest at the royal wedding and remains a very close friend of Carole and Mike, joining the Middletons in Mustique for holidays. Below we see Carole and Gemma, pictured March 2016, at the opening of 'Beyond The Beyond' at the Hay Hill Gallery in London.
I'm always interested to know the inspiration behind paintings and was keen to read more on Billington's earthy yet ethereal works. More from Hay Hill Gallery: 'Her paintings of dark and light eschew traditional painting techniques - she uses her bare hands to apply raw pigment to canvas, and the result is, to say the least, fascinating – I was certainly mesmerised when I learned she does not uses brushes at all. Gemma draws inspiration from the timelessness of nature and its ever changing patterns; her paintings feel like Baroque versions of Turner, where dramatic chiaroscuro meets abstract sublimity. They are imposing, yet serene. A raw intensity is conveyed through bold marks of textured colours and abstract imagery, which is both contemplative and meditative. "When I am in my studio I am untethered by position or possibility," explains Gemma.'
By late 2007, William and Kate were firmly back together and having recently left her job as an accessories buyer for Jigsaw, Kate was delighted to have the opportunity to indulge her passion for art when she was asked to curate an exhibition by celebrity portrait photographer Alistair Morrison at the Shop at Bluebird on Kings Road (the Bluebird is owned by Belle Robinson, who also owns Jigsaw). Kate had known the photographer since her days at St Andrews when she contacted him to ask his advice about a photography project she was working on as part of her degree. She visited his studio in Windsor and they have kept in touch since.
Speaking about Kate at the exhibition, Alistair Morrison said:
"She is very, very good, and it shows. She takes very beautiful detailed photographs. She has a huge talent and a great eye. I'm sure she will go far. She approached me when she was at university to come and do a little bit of work with her and we've kept in touch. She came to my gallery (in Windsor, Berkshire) and we talked through some of her work. She was looking to get a little help. She's very excited about the show. It's great that most of her family and friends came to support her."
Kate chatting to the photographer at the official launch.
The exhibition, 'The Time to Reflect', featured a host of celebrities including Tom Cruise, Joan Collins and Hillary Clinton. Many were taken in a special photobooth installed at the Dorchester Hotel in London and at venues in Los Angeles and New York, as part of a project to raise money for the United Nations' children's fund, UNICEF. The idea behind the project came from the notion that everyone, however famous or glamorous, was equal in the eyes of the passport camera.
Kate had penty of support support on the night with the Middleton family in attendance, Prince William's friend Guy Pelly, the Duchess of Cornwall's daughter Laura, and family friend Gemma Billington. Prince William arrived later through a rear entrance to avoid the photographers.
Kate and Pippa chatting at the launch.
At the time it was reported "Miss Middleton [was] planning the exhibition to be the first in a series at the Shop". Despite the success of the event - and Kate being hailed as "a future star of the art world" - she didn't curate another exhibition at the Bluebird. Soon after it was revealed Kate had started working for the family business, Party Pieces, and completed a technology course to learn how to compile digital catalogues and photographing catalogues.
It wasn't long before headlines of Kate getting involved in another exhibition began to surface - this time curating her own photographs. Set on a career in photography, she reportedly took several lessons with Princess Diana's favourite photographer, Mario Testino. Sources said Kate had chosen the pieces for the exhibit - including pictures of a hazy sunset and a wild seascape - which she hoped would support a charitable organisation, and had spent months preparing her portfolio. In 2010, Richard Palmer reported the project had been put on the backburner. Several factors were cited at the time, including reports Kate had cold feet and the press had intervened, not to mention the engagement was in the offing.
In 2011, William and Kate married and Kate Middleton became Duchess of Cambridge. One of the most important initial decisions a member of the Royal family has to make is determining the sort of causes they want to lend their royal patronage to. In late 2011, Kate attended a series of meetings with directors and curators at museums and galleries to learn more about the arts world. At the time a royal aide told royal reporter Roya Nikkhah: "The Duchess has a keen interest in the visual arts and has her own strong links in that world, so she wants to see where she can lend her support to the arts going forward. She is meeting people at all levels in arts institutions to learn more about the workings of a gallery, how exhibitions are put together and how works of art come together, before deciding which organisations she will support." When Kate's first patronages were announced in 2012 it came as no surprise to see the National Portrait Gallery included.
Another related choice was the Art Room - a charity aimed at 5 to 16-year-olds who are experiencing emotional and behavioural difficulties. Many of the children who go to the Art Room are disengaged from mainstream education, disruptive or withdrawn, and all have been identified as needing special time away from their classrooms. The results have proven that in a caring and creative environment the most challenging children can 'learn to achieve through art'. During a 2013 speech Kate said: "As patron of the Art Room, I feel immense pride seeing the amazing work that they are doing, but I also feel hugely excited to look to a future with more Art Rooms, where many more challenging and vulnerable children will be helped."
Kate's fondness for photography continued and on royal tours she is rarely without her trusty Canon camera in hand. In late 2012, Kensington Palace released several photographs Kate took during the Cambridges' tour of Southeast Asia.
It's clear to see the Duchess has a great eye and the release of the photos was an excellent move allowing us to get to know Kate and her interests better. The photos showcased Kate's personal memories form her second royal tour, and included this memorable shot of an orangutan.
Another milestone for a member of the Royal family is their first official portrait. There's an enormous amount of planning and thought in terms of selecting the right artist and how one wishes to present oneself for a portrait that will be looked back on for generations. Kate was very much involved in the selection process for hers, choosing artist Paul Emsley.
Kate attended two sittings for the portrait, in May 2012 and June 2012 at the artist's studio and Kensington Palace respectively. The Duchess wore a bottle-green pussybow blouse by French Connection and Diana's sapphire and diamond earrings. Emsley made use of a series of photographs produced during the sittings. After three and a half months painting, the portrait was presented to the National Portrait Gallery's trustees at their November 2012 meeting.
The portrait garnered mixed reviews with many feeling it made the Duchess look older whilst others were disappointed with the informality of it. The Duchess had considerable input throughout the whole process stipulating she wanted to be "portrayed naturally" as her "natural self rather than her official self". I've always thought the quote to be of the most interesting and insightful we've seen about Kate. As a member of the Royal family we hear very little from Kate, and we've yet to see much in terms of interviews. So it was incredibly interesting to hear her views and her wish to have her private self rather than her official self portrayed. Paul Emsley added: "She struck me as an enormously open and generous and a very warm person. After initially feeling it would be an unsmiling portrait I think it was the right choice in the end to have her smiling - that is really who she is."
The Duchess added a creative touch to a mural at the Goring Hotel - where she spent the night before her wedding - to mark the hotel's 150th birthday.
We know the Duchess is a keen photographer, but how does she feel about being on the other side of the lens? As one of the most photographed women in the world HRH is used to the glare of the camera. Kate has been asked to do a shoot for countless publications and British Vogue was no exception. I think we were all quite surprised when the Duchess was unveiled as British Vogue's centenary issue cover star in June 2016.
Kate's patronage the National Portrait Gallery collaborated with the magazine on the series of portraits of the Duchess, shot by photographer Josh Olins at the Sandringham estate in Norfolk countryside in January, and styled by Vogue fashion director Lucinda Chambers. The Duchess used professional make-up artist Sally Branka, who persuaded her to forego her usual black eyeliner in favour of a fresher look.
Much like Kate's portrait, we saw a very informal Kate which was something she wanted. Vogue reported: "Having participated in choosing not only the clothes worn in the shoot and the locations used as a backdrop, but also the photographer who captured the images, the Duchess was pleased with the resulting feeling of informality in the final shots." Kensington Palace said: "The Duchess had never taken part in a photography shoot like this before. She hopes that people appreciate the portraits with the sense of relaxed fun with which they were taken." Kate worked closely with Josh Olins to convey a casual look opting to eschew a glamorous photo shoot at the Palace with gowns and jewels in favour of an outdoorsy spread at Anmer Hall, with her favourite stripey tops and jeans. Again, this is another stellar example of Kate using art to convey a message.
The Duchess viewing the photos at the National Portrait Gallery.
I think we'll all agree it's been wonderful to see Kate's photos of George and Charlotte. The Duchess has elected to take many of the official photos of her children, and much like her own portrait, it offers an informal, relaxed look at the little Prince and Princess growing up. The children are much more relaxed being photographed by their mother at home.
A couple of my favourites include Prince George's first day of school. What parent doesn't have snaps identical to this one in their photo album?
And from Princess Charlotte's adorable first birthday photographs, I love this shot of Charlotte looking at her mum. No doubt many of Kate's photos of the children take pride of place at Anmer Hall and Kensnington Palace.
It's been most enjoyable and interesting to take a look at the role art has played in Kate's life and how it has influenced her through the years. It plays an important role in her public life and I imagine will continue to do so throughout her life. On a personal level, it remains a much-loved interest, with a royal source noting: "Photography is a great passion for the Duchess and she continues to pursue it avidly. It is a real release for her and she takes her work very seriously." There is still talk of Kate staging an exhibition in aid of one of her patronages; I very much hope to see her do that one day. In the meantime, we continue to see Kate "speak" through artistic works, portraits and photographs; telling us that, while she's proud to be a member of the Royal family, she is, in her own words during a pre-wedding engagement in Belfast, "still very much Kate".