News & Opinion


‘Burning in hell’ or ‘very fine’? King Charles’ first official portrait unveiled

The Daily Beast

May 14, 2024

Queen Camilla told artist Jonathan Yeo, “Yes, you’ve got him.” Charles suggested the butterfly landing on his shoulder. And online, debate rages about all that swirling red.

The first official portrait of King Charles completed since his coronation as British monarch has been unveiled—with his face and body emerging from a striking, ghoulish-looking red miasma, and a butterfly about to land on his shoulder.

The large oil-on-canvas portrait, measuring 8ft 15in by 6ft 15in and created by the renowned painter Jonathan Yeo, features Charles in the garb of the Welsh Guards, holding a sword. Charles was appointed the Guards’ Regimental Colonel in 1975, with Prince William taking on the post in 2023.

The BBC reported that the painting has one confirmed fan: Queen Camilla, who, on seeing the portrait, said to Yeo: “Yes, you’ve got him.”

Inevitably, online opinion raged about the dramatic painting—about whether it showed Charles’ “acceptance of the revelation of your flaws and your mortality,” or it being a “very fine portrait,” or conversely “like the poster for a truly nightmarish horror movie,” or even so bad it was deemed “absolutely fecking hideous, looks like he is burning in hell.”

The portrait joins a gallery of other controversial royal renderings, like Lucian Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and Paul Emsley’s portrait of Kate Middleton.

The portrait was commissioned in 2020 to commemorate Charles marking 50 years as a member of The Drapers’ Company in 2022.

Yeo said Charles had seen the painting in its “half-done state… He was initially mildly surprised by the strong color but otherwise he seemed to be smiling approvingly.”

Yeo—whose other royal sitters included Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and who has painted celebrities like Nicole Kidman—told the BBC that Charles had sat for the portrait four times since 2021. “My interest is really in figuring out who someone is and trying to get that on a canvas,” he said.

As for the presence of the butterfly, it “symbolizes metamorphosis and rebirth,” Yeo said, referencing Charles’ ascension to the throne.

The butterfly also references Charles’ dedication to environment causes that “he has championed most of his life and certainly long before they became a mainstream conversation.”

Yeo told the BBC: “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 (Charles) said, ‘What about a butterfly landing on my shoulder?’”

“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,” Yeo said in a statement.

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

As for feeling nervous about how the portrait might be received by the king himself, Yeo joked: “If this was seen as treasonous, I could literally pay for it with my head, which would be an appropriate way for a portrait painter to die—to have their head removed!”