Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The King Charles Portrait by Jonathan Yeo

I said last week that I'd reserve judgement - in terms of a blog post - until I'd seen the actual portrait of King Charles III by Jonathan Yeo.

So, this morning, I visited the Philip Mould Gallery at 18-19 Pall Mall in central London and took a look. In the company of a lot of other people I might add. The door was opening with new visitors almost the whole time I was there - with most people very surprised to find out that viewing the painting is free.

This post is about:

  • background to the portrait
  • how commissioning portraits of members of the Royal Family works 
  • what I think about the portrait
  • references to what other people think about the portrait - including articles which have commented on
    • Yeo as a portrait Artist
    • This portrait in particular
    • the Internet memes

Head and shoulders and butterfly in portrait of King Charles III by Jonathan Yeo

Background to this portrait

The portrait was commissioned in 2020 by The Draper's Company to mark the 50th anniversary of Charles being a member of The Draper's Company.

The Draper's Company was founded in the Middle Ages and its formal title is The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Mary the Virgin of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London.

It is one of the 111 livery companies. It's also one of the Great Twelve Livery Companies (i.e. the most important ones). Livery companies started out like guilds - a professional association for people doing the same thing to the same standard - in this case being a draper - meaning a retailer or wholesaler of cloth that was mainly for clothing or wool and cloth merchants. 

Today, not all members are drapers and the purpose of the company is largely as a charitable, ceremonial and educational institution. If interested, you can read about its heritage here

The Brief

The brief Jonathan Yeo got from the Draper's Company was specific about the size - to match other portraits they have.  In terms of size, it is very big. 

In terms of how the Prince of Wales (as he was in 2020) should be portrayed, their preference was for him to be portrayed in uniform, probably the Welsh Guards - to reflect the fact he was Prince of Wales. 

Or the way I looked at it, as a Livery Company whose heritage was about cloth, the clothing was important!

Which is interesting given how it turned out.

Half way through the portrait, The Queen died and the Prince of Wales became King Charles III. Obviously there were a lot of calls on his time during the early months of his monarchy. The last sitting was some 14 months after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

The butterfly suggests the monarch emerging from the "waiting" chrysalis stage. Prince Charles has of course been waiting some 71years (between 1951 and 2022) before he became King. He's spent most of his life as Prince of Wales.

The portrait

The portrait depicts him larger than life and wearing the uniform of the Welsh Guards, of which he was made Colonel in 1975. 

King Charles III portrait by Jonathan Yeo 
- with a man adding scale to demonstrate the size.

Commissioning portraits of the Monarch


The King sat for the painter four times, for around an hour on each occasion, with Yeo also working from drawings and photography in between. By the time it was finally finished at the end of last year, Charles was King.
I know and have spoken to several portrait artists who have painted the Monarch. They all say pretty much the same thing about the process.
  • The client is the organisation who commissioned them i.e. NOT the monarch or other member of the royal family
  • Monarchs are very busy people with lots of work commitments - hence the artist must always fit in with when they have space in their schedule
  • Sittings tend to be very minimal compared to normal portraits. You can ask for more but you're unlikely to get more sittings. The only person they've made an exception for that I'm aware of is Lucian Freud - and even he didn't get what he normally wanted - so he went small instead!
all artists get a limited number of strictly allocated time slots in which to paint the Queen from life. As one artist put it to me once "You're not going to get any more so best not to waste any of the time" (from the description of the process of painting the Queen in my blog post about Portrait of the Queen by Miriam Escofet
  • Sittings have to be scheduled to fit in with their other engagements - and plans for their days are fixed in advance many months in advance, hence last minute changes are difficult
  • Different artists take a different amount of time to complete a portrait - but those who are efficient will tend to be finished in under a year. However the whole process may take several months - and commission to reveal will take even longer.
Jonathan had 4 sittings with the subject between June 2021 and November 2023 at Highgrove and later at Clarence House, working on it in between in his London studio. (Jonathan Yeo website)
Obviously, one of the issues in relation to sittings would have been these could only be held at times when it was possible to do so - with the rules on access and proximity during the Pandemic being crucially important. For this reason alone, it's not surprising that from commission to unveiling it's been about 4 years.

What I think about "King Charles III" by Jonathan Yeo

I don't like it. 

I particularly do NOT like all the suggestions and memes generated by the portrait which suggest variously:
  • the red is symbolic of all the blood spilled on behalf of the monarchy over the years (blame it all on Charles - as if he had anything to do with it!!!)
  • it's a satanic painting as in you can see a devil's head if you make it reflect on itself
  • etc etc etc.
WHY would any organisation commission a portrait which 
  • becomes a global meme - and not in a nice way?
  • leads to views that it is supposed to represent all the blood that has flowed in the past and is, in the view of the commentators, associated with the Royal Family?
I can only imagine the Draper's Company had no sketch of the final painting to approve.
BIG mistake

Apparently Yeo is reported as liking and enjoying all the many, many memes on social media. Which I can only think means 
  • either he has a warped mind 
  • or he really doesn't care two figs for the impact on the sitter or the client.
“My [younger] daughter was much too keen to show me all the crazy stuff about the painting on TikTok,” he told The Sunday Times. “She’s 17 and … had the best day of her life with all of the conspiracies about the painting, saying I’m a satanist and Illuminati.” (The Independent)
That said, I think the head is excellent - indeed one of the best I've seen of him. If this had been "just a head", as Yeo's portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh was, then he would undoubtedly got a lot of plaudits for the portrait. 

Head of King Charles III by Jonathan Yeo

I also think the hands - and what the King refers to as his "sausage fingers" are also well done if worked up to less extent when compared to the head.

Hands of King Charles III by Jonathan Yeo

But it's not "just a head".

It's really unclear to me why Yeo attempts larger portraits if his perennial response is just to paint head and hands and sketch the rest. When I look at his website:
  • I find it amazing how many of his portraits are a detailed portrait of the head and a lot of sketching in relation to the body.  
  • Indeed it's very difficult to find anybody who has had their clothing painted well, with the possible exception of Ozwald Boateng, the high-end designer of menswear, who got a suit but hardly the best suit I've ever seen painted. Indeed all clothing is essentially one colour and very few tones.
Which makes me wonder who on earth suggested to The Draper's Company that Jonathan Yeo was the artist to go with for the portrait of the Prince of Wales? 

There are so MANY portrait artists who can be relied upon to do not just a decent job of painting the clothing - but an excellent job of a properly completed portrait. (I've been looking at some of them again today).

Maybe they decided they wanted something a bit more edgy - in which case why on earth did they then express a preference for him being suited in his Welsh Guards regalia? That simply makes absolutely no sense to me at all. You don't trash something which is symbolic and represents heritage and pride - it's just "not done".

Which inclines me to think that all the nice things The Draper's Company are saying about the portrait is essentially about "saving face".

I'd have personally thought a painting of the Prince of Wales in one of his incredibly nice well tailored suits with a great tie and a 'not matching' kerchief in the top pocket would have been flattering to their Company as well as entirely representative of a man who actually really likes very good quality suits and cloth.

The big question is WHY would anybody painting a portrait for The Draper's Company obliterate all reference to the cloth in the portrait?

So that's maybe a conundrum which only the Draper's Company and Yeo can answer.

Other specific reasons I DISLIKE the portrait 

Essentially, I think the portrait says far more about the painter than it does about the sitter.

Size: c. 8' 6'' x 6' 6"

These are:
  • the red colour is completely overwhelming. 
    • Red is a colour which is very hard to look at when it this bright. Very wearing on the eye.
    • It also obliterates anything it is placed next to. A couple of mantras about painting with red are "it draws the eye" AND "be careful how much you use"!
    • I've seen it said that he used the red as the buttons and medals and general paraphernalia of the uniform were becoming distracting. That just says to me the client was foolish to commission and artist who cannot paint a uniform. Also that the artist did not plan the painting and has no concept of thinking about the tones within a painting before he starts.
    • I think he started to try and play down the uniform initially using a darker colour and then went into reverse and obliterated it using even more red (and pink) - but in the background
    • I don't understand why he didn't just "knock back" the brightness of the gilt -but giveb he hardly ever paints clothing properly that is very probably something he simply does not know how to do
  • The red leaves the head and hands isolated and floating - which just makes it look a really, really odd portrait.
  • the torso and stature - is curiously two dimensional - very flat. Which is odd given the modelling within the head. Maybe he's never done life drawing?
  • In terms of accuracy, the shoulder epaulets are completely different widths (i.e. no measurements involved here!). 
  • It just looks LAZY to me. Or maybe it might more accurately described as an affectation. The pinks and reds appear to have been quickly brushed and scumbled over the background - with some attempt to obliquely restate the key features of hus uniform and medals.
The medals and insignia fade into the background

Other perspectives on Yeo's portrait and its announcement

Initially, general reaction seemed to be that people applauded the "contemporary art" aspect of the painting - as if the painting was more about being a contribution to contemporary art rather than a depiction of an individual of some status for an important client which values its heritage and connections to the Royal Family.

Below you can find links to other perspectives. I've only included those which have something original to say as opposed to regurgitating a press release or other people's words.
A psychedelic sea of lurid reds and a clunking monarch butterfly cannot save this superficially observed and carelessly executed bland banality
Jonathan Yeo’s royal portrait assaults the eye and leaves you with nothing.
I’ve spent a little time looking at images of Jonathan Yeo’s confused, obsequious, oversized and unaccountably frightening portrait of King Charles III. And after trying to like it (a critic’s first responsibility), I’ve realized it’s as bad as I first thought.

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