Much lauded and loathed in equal measure, the first official portrait of King Charles III is on public display in London for a few weeks so you can make your own mind up about it.

Dominating the ground floor of Philip Mould’s Pall Mall gallery, the portrait is exceptionally red but, maybe surprisingly, not as red as you might have expected from press photos. It is also a lot more textured than seems to be evident from photos taken of it so far.

In part, that could be due to the photos in the press so far often being close-ups or flat photos of the portrait without the frame, but once you see the portrait as a whole, the impact of the redness isn’t as eye-burning as you might have expected.

It’s still a very striking portrait, but not so much that it leaves you blinded by the expanse of red paint used.

The artist said that he chose the red background to tone down the impact of the red uniform of the Welsh Guards that the King is wearing, and that decision seems to work very well. You can still see that he’s wearing a uniform, but its no longer the defining feature of the monarch.

He could have stuck the King in front of a red curtain, but that would have been tediously 19th-century and so boringly obvious. The almost blending of foreground and background is an inspired, and yes, brave, choice. Not everyone will like it, but when you see it with your own eyes, it’s clearer that the artist has chosen the right path.

Up to about a century ago, royal portraits were propaganda tools to remind people of their position as head of state and backed by the state’s military power. Packed full of symbols that most of us today wouldn’t recognise but were well understood at the time, the portraits were of the “head of state,” not of the person who occupied that position.

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous Armada portrait could be of any person, as it has nothing to do with a lady called Elizabeth and is all about the authority of England as a country. This official portrait of King Charles III shows him in military guise, but by fading the uniform into the background, it’s of the person more than the uniform.

Still head of state, but also very much of the human occupying the position.

The subtle addition of the monarch butterfly lifts the portrait by adding symbolism but also lightens the staggering impact of the wall of red that fills the background.

If you’ve seen the portrait in the press, pay a visit to see it in person. It really is quite remarkable, in a good way.

I was unsure if I liked it or not from the news reports, but having seen it in the flesh, so to speak, undeniably, I am a fan.

The portrait will be on public view at the Philip Mould Gallery on Pall Mall until 14th June 2024 21st June 2024, Mondays to Fridays, from 9.30am until 5.30pm.

Entry is free. Booking is not required.

While visiting, also take in the Mary Beale exhibition, which is free and located in the basement.

If you take a photo, depending on how your camera works, you will likely need to alter the exposure. In most smartphones, this is done by tapping the screen in the light or dark patch to change it. In this case, tapping on the upper half of the portrait, as seen on your phone screen, will darken down the gallery’s spotlights and give you a much better photo.

Otherwise, you end up with something more like this – which is actually quite appealing, but it’s not what the painting looks like in reality.

After the exhibition, the portrait will go to Drapers’ Hall in the City of London, as it was the Worshipful Company of Drapers who commissioned Jonathan Yeo to paint it in the first place. They wanted the portrait to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Prince of Wales, as he was at the time, becoming a Freeman of the Drapers Company.

Drapers’ Hall is usually open to the public during the September Open House, so if it is open, you might be able to see the portrait hanging in the space reserved for it.

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5 comments
  1. Mauricereed says:

    It certainly is a striking artwork.

  2. Richard King says:

    Looks like he is being cremated.

  3. Chas says:

    Backgrounds aside, the face remarkably captures the essential kindness and good humour of the monarch.

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