King Charles hid poignant symbol in new painting

The poignant detail was added at the King’s request when asked to think of future onlookers

Jordan Reynolds
Thursday 16 May 2024 07:02
King unveils first completed official portrait of himself since coronation

King Charles requested a subtle, poignant detail to be added to his new portrait when asked to think of a message for future generations.

The new portrait, by British artist Jonathan Yeo, features the King in the uniform of the Welsh Guards against a red backdrop with a single butterfly appearing to land on his shoulder.

This detail was the King’s idea, which he thought of when asked to think of a “clue” to sum up his reign for schoolchildren in the future.

Jonathan Yeo’s oil on canvas portrait of King Charles III (Jonathan Yeo/PA) ((PA Media))

Yeo recalled: “I said: ‘When schoolchildren are looking at this in 200 years and they’re looking at the who’s who of the monarchs, what clues can you give them?’

“He said: ‘What about a butterfly landing on my shoulder?’”

During a conversation with the King, Yeo said they discussed how it would be “nice to have a narrative element which referenced his passion for nature and environment” and he spoke of how Charles “changed jobs halfway through the process” and the butterfly is a “symbol of metamorphosis” so it “tells multiple stories”.

Unveiled on Tuesday afternoon at Buckingham Palace, the red backdrop in the portrait can be seen to reflect Charles’s position within the Welsh Guards, of which he was made Regimental Colonel in 1975.

The butterfly in the painting was King Charles’s idea (His Majesty King Charles III by Jonathan Yeo 2024/PA Wire)

Explaining why he chose the abstract design, Yeo said he felt like this portrait should have more of a “dynamic and contemporary feel” and this sense of transformation is arguably reflected by the butterfly as well.

The Queen said she “hopes it is going to be seen by lots of people” after the unveiling.

After the unveiling, Yeo said he often says the secret to a good portrait is “having an interesting subject to start with, and you couldn’t ask for a better one than this”, before quickly adding “other than Your Majesty” referring to Camilla who he has previously painted.

He said the King “couldn’t be more lively” and was “very easy company” during their sittings, adding: “He kind of makes you laugh and asks lots of questions, and he’s interested in art as well so there’s always lots to talk about.”

King Charles is well known for his commitment to protectin the enviornment (PA)

Asked if the King’s accession to the throne had altered his approach, Yeo said “maybe very slightly”, adding “I’d sort of started it but not got very far when he changed jobs, and you can sense his, you know, his face doesn’t change particularly, but I have seen it in politicians, in other sittings before, when people are in office, they do sort of move differently.

“And so I think I was conscious of that. And then when I saw him again, you had this sense of, I don’t know how to explain it, but he seemed very comfortable with himself. And so it’s a sort of subtle thing, but yes, it’s definitely there.”

Yeo said it is “always the person who knows the subject best who gives you the instant visual feedback” and when he could tell Camilla “liked it, or at least recognised it, I knew I was kind of nearly there with it”.

The portrait itself was commissioned in 2020 to celebrate the then Prince of Wales’s 50 years as a member of The Drapers’ Company.

The canvas size – approximately eight-and-a-half by six-and-a-half feet when framed – was carefully considered to fit within the architecture of Drapers’ Hall and the context of the paintings it will eventually hang alongside.

When I started this project, His Majesty The King was still His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and much like the butterfly I've painted hovering over his shoulder, this portrait has evolved as the subject's role in our public life has transformed

Jonathan Yeo

Yeo had four sittings with the King, beginning when Charles was Prince of Wales in June 2021 at Highgrove, and later at Clarence House. The last sitting took place in November 2023 at Clarence House.

Yeo also worked from drawings and photographs he took of the King, allowing him to work on the portrait in his London studio between sittings.

Yeo said: “It was a privilege and pleasure to have been commissioned by The Drapers’ Company to paint this portrait of His Majesty The King, the first to be unveiled since his coronation.

“When I started this project, His Majesty The King was still His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and much like the butterfly I’ve painted hovering over his shoulder, this portrait has evolved as the subject’s role in our public life has transformed.

“I do my best to capture the life experiences etched into any individual sitter’s face. In this case, my aim was also to make reference to the traditions of royal portraiture but in a way that reflects a 21st-century monarchy and, above all else, to communicate the subject’s deep humanity.

“I’m unimaginably grateful for the opportunity to capture such an extraordinary and unique person, especially at the historic moment of becoming King.”

The artist said he couldn’t have asked for a better subject than King Charles (PA)

Yeo has also previously produced commissions of Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Camilla, Sir Tony Blair and Lord David Cameron.

At Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, the King and Queen were met by The Master of The Drapers’ Company Tom Harris and Past Master William Charnley.

Guests included other members of The Drapers’ Company, students and staff from the Drapers’ Academy, Welsh Guards and Yeo’s family.

The Drapers’ Company dates back more than 600 years, when a group of merchants came together to promote their trade in woollen cloth in London. As their guild and fellowship grew, they made philanthropy part of the plan.

In 2024, The Drapers’ Company has evolved from a trade association into a grant-giving body.

As it's such an important image, it's quite exciting that the public have the opportunity to get close

Philip Mould

The portrait will go on public display for a month at the Philip Mould Gallery in London, from May 16 until June 14. Entry is free.

The artwork is expected to be displayed at Drapers’ Hall from the end of August.

Philip Mould said it is the “most progressive formal royal portrait” created for a “very long time”.

He added: “As it’s such an important image, it’s quite exciting that the public has the opportunity to get close.”

Mr Mould said monarchy is about “continuity, a touch of divinity” and modern art is “edgy” and added that it is “difficult to pull off both” but that Yeo has done it.

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