Ward was born in Hereford in 1917, the son of an antiques dealer and the youngest of seven children, and brought up in a street leading to the cathedral. After failing to win a place at the local grammar school he studied at the Hereford School of Arts and Crafts from 1932 to 1936, then won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1936, where he won the Drawing Prize. His teachers included Barnett Freedman, Percy Horton, Charles Mahoney and Alan Sorrell, all of whom were lasting influences. There, he met Jehan Daly, who left with Ward in 1939 to join the Royal Engineers; having done architectural drawing at the RCA, Ward was tasked with designing and constructing pillboxes along the Kent coast, some of which were later listed, to his delight. At the end of the war, Ward met his wife Alison Williams at a YMCA in Ghent, when he was stationed in Belgium. They married in 1950, and eventually had four sons and twin daughters. Back at the RCA he won the Travelling Scholarship for 1947. A great chance was landing a four-year illustration contract with Vogue (the editor, John Parsons, was a Herefordian) from 1948 to 1952. Ward loved his time at Vogue, revelling in the jaunts with editors and fashion editors, the excitement of the deadline and the unexpected subjects - debutantes, corsets, jewellery, actors and actresses, the visits to Paris, what he called ‘the style and the nonsense of it all’. The fashion photographer Norman Parkinson taught him how to handle models - ‘Make a fuss of them. You’ve got to know who they are, what they smoke and whom they’re in love with’, useful advice with sitters from all walks of life for the rest of Ward’s career. Artistically, the graphic style he learnt by necessity - the quick, spontaneous drawing in pencil or pen and ink and watercolour - brought out his natural talent and produced some of his best and most distinctive work. He found commercial work on the Shell guides to Herefordshire and North Yorkshire, and for Guinness. He was a Fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists, something he was quite proud of. He also worked as an illustrator, notably for Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and HE Bates’s autobiography.
From 1946 to 1950 he had been living with Jehan Daly at Kempson Road in Fulham, until his marriage when he and Alison moved to Glebe Place in Chelsea. In 1954, tiring of London, Ward and his wife moved to Folkestone where he had been stationed during the war and where his sister had lived; then they bought Bilting Court near Ashford, a substantial lath and plaster 14th-century house near Ashford, which he filled with all manner of antiques, objets d’art and junk. By now sufficient commissions were coming in to pay for his growing family, including advertisements for BP and Shell, a calendar for Whitbread’s brewery, and a mural for the remote village church of Challock in Kent. Portraiture was bread-and-butter work, and amongst the many sitters were Joyce Grenfell (Ward also illustrated two of her books), Sir Michael Adeane, the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Roger Bannister, Lord Denning, Norman Parkinson and Sir Arthur Norrington, then president of Trinity College, Oxford. There are also group portraits for the Society of Dilettanti, Annabel’s club, and the National Portrait Gallery, which commissioned a group portrait of the Cabinet Secretaries and a painting of the Princess Royal. Aside from portraits, Ward drew landscapes and cityscapes, frequently in watercolour, of Italy. He once described the things he loved painting as ‘a pretty girl, a cafe, still life’. Principled, clubbable, rather courtly and a prolific letter writer, Ward was something of an Edwardian figure. Throughout his career, he stuck to the central artistic belief he had learnt at art school in Hereford: the necessity of good draughtsmanship.
Ward was known as the artist from whom the Prince of Wales received his first professional lessons in painting. When the Prince was on a visit to Italy in 1985 Ward joined him in Venice, and the two men spent happy hours together sketching the city and talking about method. While critics noted an immediate and marked improvement in the Prince’s work, Ward remarked that while ‘most amateur painters just want to splash about ... he [the Prince] wants to master the ABC of the business’. In many ways Ward was both the obvious and the ideal choice for the assignment: he had a passion for Italy and for architectural watercolour, and his connections with the Royal Family went back to 1962, when the Queen had invited him to Balmoral to sketch scenes of family life, shooting parties, picnics and favourite parts of the castle. Later, as a guest at the Prince of Wales’s wedding to Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1981, Ward sat in the choir with pad and pencil and made notes for a painting of the ceremony, and he subsequently recorded the christenings of the Princes William and Harry. With his ebullience, his self-confidence and his deep conviction that painting is an inspiring activity for amateur and professional alike, Ward made a fine artistic mentor for the Prince.
Ward was elected ARA in 1956 and RA in 1966, but resigned in 1997. He was also a member of the Royal Watercolour Society, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the New English Art Club. He was appointed CBE in 1985 (he said: ‘I love medals and orders and dingle-dangles and I shall certainly wear mine all the time’). He served on the Executive Committee of the National Art Collections Fund from 1976 to 1987. He received an Honorary Degree from Kent University in 1982. He served as a Trustee of the RA from 1985 to 1993. Tate Britain bought a large painting of his two young sons dressed in newspaper costumes and the National Portrait Gallery has over 20 drawings and paintings by him.
Ward exhibited too prolifically to list, not least with the Maas Gallery, but he was proud to have participated in 1994 in Three Contemporary Masters: John Sergeant, Jehan Daly, John Ward RA at Hazlitt’s.