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15 May 2024

In defence of the King Charles portrait

Jonathan Yeo’s modernist painting captures the weirdness of the monarch.

By Kara Kennedy

When Lucian Freud convinced the late Queen Elizabeth II to sit for a portrait in 2000, her reaction to the final piece, after 18 months of meetings with him at St James’s Palace, was to say, “I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.” If you’ve seen the portrait, you’d know that that reply was a prime example of her inimitable grace. The painting, by an artist who was then considered the greatest living British painter, is 9 inches in height, and less than flattering. Robin Simon, the editor of the British Art Journal, wrote in the Sun: “It makes her look like one of her corgis who has suffered a stroke.” Or, as the newspaper’s front page declared: “It’s a travesty your majesty”.

A little more than a year after his coronation, yesterday King Charles unveiled his first official portrait, a work four years in the making. Pulling the curtain back to reveal the 8-foot canvas, which shows him engulfed in a blood-red wash of colour, the King reacted with a petrified jolt and a little chuckle. It was reported that after looking at the painting, Queen Camilla told the British artist Jonathan Yeo: “Yes, you’ve got him.” While his wife might like it, the public’s reaction has been less kind. Online commentators have already come up with colourful critiques, such as one who said it looks like “the poster for a truly nightmarish horror movie”, and another claiming that it looks like the King is “burning in Hell”. CNN’s Jake Tapper introduced the painting on live television by saying, “We present without comment the first official portrait of Britain’s King Charles III since his coronation – apparently after he massacred a small village.”

Jonathan Yeo has certainly gone for something that would be more at home at MoMA than a royal residence. And I must admit, it is very… red. But this is a modern depiction of a modern king, stood in the uniform of the Welsh Guards, of whom he was made regimental colonel in 1975. In his hands he holds a sword, unsurprising for a portrait of a monarch. But the King, dressed in his military gear and equipped with a weapon, looks softly at us, with a butterfly just above his shoulder amid the pink swirls. “In history of art, the butterfly symbolises metamorphosis and rebirth,” Yeo explains, adding that the monarch butterfly is also a reference to the King’s efforts in environmentalism that “he has championed most of his life and certainly long before they became a mainstream conversation”.

Amid the internet memes, Yeo can take solace in the fact that the painting seems to be a hit with fellow artists and dealers. Philip Mould, an art dealer, gallery owner and co-presenter of the BBC television programme Fake or Fortune? hailed the painting as “the most progressive royal portrait done from life in a very long time”. He added that “it depicts continuity, mystery, a touch of divinity. It’s very different from the normal public offerings, but Johnny has done it in my view. How do you paint a modern monarch? He’s pulled it off.” The painting has already drawn comparisons to Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait by the American painter Kehinde Wiley, a near life-size oil-on-canvas that shows the former president surrounded by foliage. At the time of its unveiling, the painting had mixed reviews. The Washington Post ruled gamely that it was “not what you’d expect and that’s why it’s great”.

Those of us who like the official painting of King Charles III are in the minority. This is undoubtedly a painting of its time. It will make a smaller mark on monarchical art history than, say, the Tudor-era portraitist Hans Holbein’s proud, masculine depiction of Henry VIII. But it shows a different sort of monarch: one with the military gear and shiny sword, yes. But one who also liked nature, the pre-Socratics, and who had a kind face. No matter the bravado of Holbein. This portrait will remind future generations of the King’s weirdness.

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[See also: Alice Munro was the writer’s writer]

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