Visual Arts Commentary: “Razzle Dazzle” in Red — Jonathan Yeo Hails (?) the King

By Trevor Fairbrother

The fact that King Charles went along with Jonathan Yeo’s amped-up riff on academic portraiture intrigues, especially in light of his peevish opposition to modernist architecture.

HM King Charles III Jonathan Yeo, 2024.Oil on Canvas. Photo: Yeo’s website

Jonathan Yeo has painted a larger-than-life-size image of King Charles III. The subject wears the scarlet tunic of the Welsh Guards and a monarch butterfly hovers near his shoulder. There are indications that the background was once dark, but its surface now sports glazes and gestural brushstrokes in pinkish and orangish reds. The only elements spared this handling are the hands, the careworn, quietly smiling face and the insect.

Yeo (born in 1970) is a London creative born on the inside track. Tim Yeo, his father, was a Conservative member of Parliament. Young Jonathan attended a fee-charging private academy in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. He studied Film and English at the University of Kent. In his early twenties he underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat cancer. During the illness he taught himself to paint portraits. Encouragement came in 1993 when Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a family friend, offered to sit for a commissioned likeness. Early in 1994 Tim Yeo resigned his post in the cabinet after newspapers disclosed that he had recently fathered a child in an extramarital affair. Life continued nicely nonetheless: soon thereafter the Sunday Times Magazine published Fergus Greer’s photograph of the sober-suited father with his modish son.

In 2001 a committee of MPs chose Yeo as the UK’s first “official election artist.” He painted portraits of the three main political leaders to be displayed in Portcullis House, a new parliamentary building. In 2013 London’s National Portrait Gallery gave him a mid-career retrospective that included paintings of mogul Rupert Murdoch, avant-garde sculptor Damien Hirst, and film stars Kevin Spacey and Helena Bonham Carter. The Guardian‘s Maev Kennedy dubbed Yeo “the go-to artist for slightly edgy but convincingly recognizable contemporary portraits.”

In 2020 London’s Worshipful Company of Drapers began plans to honor the Prince of Wales on the 50th anniversary of his becoming a member. They commissioned Yeo to paint a portrait to hang in Drapers’ Hall, their palatial 19th-century headquarters. It is said that the prince chose the artist, who had already painted his father, the Duke of Edinburgh (2006), and his second wife Camilla (2014). Yeo was granted four sittings at his subject’s residences, the first in 2021 and the last in 2023. During that time Queen Elizabeth died and Charles was crowned. In February 2024, after work on the portrait had concluded, the world learned that the king had been diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer.

King Charles III Trooping the Colour, 2023. Photo: Wikipedia

The portrait’s debut was a bonanza for media pundits, art critics and opinionators. The coverage began well before the ceremonial unveiling at Buckingham Palace on May 14th. Two days later the canvas went on public view for a month at Philip Mould Gallery. The owner of that posh Pall Mall establishment is a presenter for the BBC’s documentary series Fake or Fortune?, and he published the monograph The Many Faces of Jonathan Yeo in 2013.

In the news stories the artist said he chose the military attire and the sitter proposed the inclusion of a butterfly to signal his devotion to environmentalism. Yeo speculated that his surfeit of red was a subliminal response to a heart attack he experienced in the course of this project. He said the prince was “mildly surprised by the strong color” when he saw the work in “half-done state.” Queen Camilla attended the final sitting and allegedly gave her approval by remarking “Yes, you’ve got him.”

Critical responses to HM King Charles III have been mixed. The column Jonathan Jones wrote for The Guardian (May 15) impressed me most. The critic began by disclosing that he met Yeo at a radio gig and found himself “instantly charmed.” Buoyed by the encounter he checked out the artist’s website and “cringed” because he found the art made by that “intelligent, relaxed [and] unassuming” man to be superficial and banal. Jones called the royal picture “technically superficial and unfelt,” and objected to the “pinkish psychedelic splurge.” He spoke the line that bedevils many portraitists – “There’s no insight into the subject’s personality” ­– then concluded, “It’s tempting to laugh at this painting, but if you care about art it’s a bit sad too. Yeo seems to be saying that painting itself is just a cheery bit of fakery and razzle dazzle.”

Jonathan Yeo’s D-Day Veteran Geoffrey Pattinson, 2015. Photo: From Yeo’s website

Stylistically, Yeo’s new opus builds on an earlier work suffused with a maroonish-red palette: D-Day Veteran Geoffrey Pattinson (2015). Prince Charles commissioned him to make it for the private collection of the royal family and promptly debuted it in The Last Of The Tide, an exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery (now The King’s Gallery) at Buckingham Palace. Reminiscent of illustrations featured on the covers of Time magazine in the 1940s and the no-nonsense naturalism of Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), Geoffrey Pattinson demonstrates Yeo’s ties to the mainstream. I’ve never examined a painting by him, but I suspect his skills for figuration and for quasi-abstract brushwork are equally middling. On May 2, 2024, New York Times noted that Yeo gets about $500,000 for a private commission and reported his plucky admission that he is part of “the luxury goods business.”

Feedback about King Charles III on websites is an astonishing accretion of sparring and snarking. People vent love or hatred for the painting, the artist, the sitter and/or the royal family. And how are they interpreting the red? One wit finds it problematic because “Charles is as colorful (or spicy) as cottage cheese.” Several are reminded of posters for horror movies and the covers of pulp vampire novels. Others posit heavier connections. Thus, the red alludes to centuries of bloodshed by the imperial British army. It references the 1993 revelation of Prince Charles’ remark to his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, about wanting to be reincarnated inside her as a tampon. It reflects the subject’s burning anger on multiple fronts: his first wife was enormously popular and her death cast a shadow on his integrity; his mother kept him from the throne until he was 73; and his younger son is wayward.

These rubbishy circuses are addictive distractions in grim times. But the fact that King Charles went along with Yeo’s amped-up riff on academic portraiture intrigues, especially in light of his peevish opposition to modernist architecture. In 1984, for example, he killed a proposed glass and steel extension to the National Gallery by publicly likening it to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” Why did “The Firm” (the umbrella enterprise of the royals, their personal staff and their business communications advisers) back Yeo’s unsubtle antics? Stay tuned to the fabricated news network.

Trevor Fairbrother is a writer and curator. He recently wrote an appreciation of the Dominican-American artist Firelei Báez for The Arts Fuse.

© 2024 Trevor Fairbrother

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