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The King’s New Portrait: Charles III’s Red Era

In the summer of 1696, as William III was leading a European wide campaign against Louis XIV, two men—Henry Beaumont, a tax collector, and Francis Prowde, a local vicar—nearly came to blows over an auction of paintings at the Swan Inn in Bridgewater, Somerset. According to some, it was a picture of Charles I, which Beaumont mocked by bidding the absurdly low sum of a groat (four pence), declaring that the painting was "worth little & that that king was the cause of the massacre in Ireland," that caused offence. But other witnesses claimed it had been a portrait of James II, which Beaumont derided as a picture of the "Abdicated king," stating "the nation had laid him aside [and] they would not have him set up" for sale. In response to these outbursts, Prowde dismissed Beaumont as a "buffoon," and Beaumont called the cleric a "Drunken Sottish Priest" before "challenging him to fight."

While disagreements about Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of King Charles III have not resulted in fisticuffs, responses to the painting have been divided. For some, the intense shades of ruby, coral, and crimson that overwhelm the king’s red Welsh Guards uniform and saturate the canvas call to mind "the blood spilled over centuries of imperialism or the fires of hell." Red is a striking if ill-advised color choice, considering how many statues of European monarchs and statesmen have been defaced with red paint by activists since 2020. Statues of Queen Victoria in Winnipeg, Montreal, Victoria, Guyana, Melbourne, Leeds, and Guernsey, for instance, have been covered in red paint and graffiti to protest the British monarchy’s involvement in colonialism, slavery, indigenous dispossession, and, via their role as head of the Church of England, the residential school system. Is Yeo trolling us—try as you might, the firm will live on? Or is he warning the king—if you want the monarchy to continue, you must confront these legacies? Others see in the painting an effort at novelty and cultural relevance that falls flat. "The truth is," one critic concludes, "that portraiture and monarchy are alike: irrelevant and anachronistic." Even if paintings of kings and queens no longer inspire the types of intense partisanship and political interpretation that caused Beaumont to threaten Prowde, why has Yeo’s painting struck such a nerve among audiences? In our age of influencers, media saturation, and digitally manipulated images—where you’re more likely to encounter Yeo’s picture in the royal family’s Instagram feed than to see it in a gallery—what purpose does an official portrait of the British sovereign serve?

A brightly colored oil painting of King Charles III. From the piece "Over seven feet tall and five feet wide, Charles stands with his hands resting on the hilt of his sword, staring directly out at the viewer. Layers of red nearly obscure his military decorations and chivalric insignia, focusing our attention elsewhere, on a monarch butterfly that hovers above the king’s right shoulder."
"Portrait of His Majesty King Charles III" by Jonathan Yeo was unveiled on May 14, 2024. Image from

Over seven feet tall and five feet wide, Charles stands with his hands resting on the hilt of his sword, staring directly out at the viewer. Layers of red nearly obscure his military decorations and chivalric insignia, focusing our attention elsewhere, on a monarch butterfly that hovers above the king’s right shoulder. Tradition is upstaged by transformation, then, as emblems of office are replaced by a symbol of metamorphosis, nature, and fragility – facing precipitous decline, the monarch butterfly was added to threatened species lists in 2022, something Charles is likely aware of given his history of conservationism. With this portrait we might say that the king is entering his "red era," to borrow some Swiftie vocabulary. Taylor Swift’s Red album inaugurated a genre shift for the singer as she moved from her country past to her pop princess future, embracing messy self-reflection and personal expression, a vintage vibe with a modern red lip. Yeo’s portrait of Charles, I think, represents a similar—if less compelling—effort at rebranding, an attempt to reinvent the king and stamp his personality on the British monarchy after 64 years of waiting in the wings.

Part of the reason why the portraits and personalities of British rulers are so well remembered today is because the monarchy, going back to at least the Tudors, has paid close attention to their visual representation and the circulation of their images. Kevin Sharpe detects in Hans Holbein’s still instantly recognizable paintings of Henry VIII—bejeweled, draped in fur and gold lace, glaring down upon viewers with his chest puffed and stout legs planted widely—an effort to render "on canvas the features and physiognomy of the man," to endow the person of the ruler with innate power and sovereignty within the context of religious divisions and state building. During her long reign, Elizabeth I both sought to control her image, issuing Privy Council orders to destroy unskilled paintings that debased her majesty, while also participating in her own commodification, appealing to public desire to see and possess her picture. Portraiture shifted in the direction of the iconographic, Roy Strong argues, inventing the myth of the Virgin Queen as the focus of national and religious adulation. As in the so-called Rainbow Portrait, painted just near the end of her reign, it’s the symbols that surround the queen that convey ideology and emotions to spectators—the wise embroidered serpent on her sleeve that keeps the passions of her heart in check, her orange cloak covered with eyes and ears that signify her ability to peer into even the darkest recesses of the state, the rainbow she holds in her hand, dispelling the rain with the return of golden sun. This style was productively ambiguous, able to "be read and re-read [in] many ways,"  assuaging anxieties about Elizabeth’s advancing age and lack of an heir, about religious fragmentation, social dislocation, and economic distress.

While the symbolism of Yeo’s painting is the subject of wide online speculation and may be read in multiple ways, the artist’s real aim, as he explains it, is "to communicate the subject’s deep humanity." The king’s visage and gaze intend to convey authenticity rather than simple similitude, a goal advanced by theorists of British portraiture going back to the eighteenth century. But what, if anything, does this image tell us about the king’s mind? As a child, Charles was purportedly fascinated by Anthony Van Dyck’s 1636 triple portrait of his namesake, Charles I, which hung at Windsor, a king for whom image was everything, whose dynastic and political ambitions were inseparable from his aesthetic concerns. Courtiers looked upon the king’s extensive art collection and Van Dyck’s depictions of the king with awe, they praised the Flemish artist for depicting the sovereign with such sober realism and majesty that they could imagine his portraits coming to life. But we all know how that reign ended, with Charles’s head on the chopping block just steps away from Whitehall’s Banqueting House, with its massive Baroque ceiling paintings by Peter Paul Reubens that glorified the Stuarts. It was such portraits of Charles I, or at least studio copies and cheaper reproductions, as well as paintings of his son, James II, that Henry Beaumont declared to be worth only a few pennies in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Successive rulers continued to use artworks and visual images to convey important political messages, often innovating under the façade of continuity, adopting styles that mobilized tradition but expressed legitimacy and authority in new ways. As Julie Farguson contends, William III’s and Mary II’s first state portraits depicted the couple in their coronation robes and regalia, part of an effort to emphasize that they ruled through Parliament rather than hereditary right, to broadcast their commitment to both constitutional monarchy and Protestantism. My own work demonstrates that the commercial marketplace of souvenirs, portraits, and printed accounts of the royal family continued to expand across the eighteenth century—even as the business of Parliament grew, images of rulers remained a fundamental component of political culture, used to signify national belonging and partisan difference, and to construct personal and communal memory. And as the political framework continued to evolve so too did the royal portrait, whether in the new emphasis on family and domestic companionship in the paintings of George III with his abundant children, or in Queen Victoria’s full-on embrace of middle-class domesticity in paintings and photographs, which inflated the monarchy’s ideological power as their actual authority diminished. These are just some examples of many that could be discussed.

Rather than trying to pin down the precise meaning of Charles III’s new official portrait or appraise its aesthetic value, we might instead focus on the wider context out of which the picture emerged and with which it engages, its relationship to political culture and contemporary social issues. This is an unprecedent moment marked by political turbulence, climate catastrophe, economic disruption, scandals in the royal family and accusations of racism, pressure for the monarchy to apologize for its direct involvement in slavery and imperialism, and a growing population of younger Britons who hold a negative view of the king and crown. If tradition is to endure, it must transform, and what that will look like is not yet certain.    


Stephanie Koscak is Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, focusing on material and visual culture, print and ephemera, politics, and gender in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain. Her first book, Monarchy, Print Culture, and Reverence in Early Modern England: Picturing Royal Subjects (Routledge, 2020), explores the commercial mediation of royalism from the second half of the seventeenth century. She is working on a new book, provisionally titled Between Ownership and Undoing: Dispossession, Loss, and Material Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain, which reexamines Britain’s rapidly developing consumer marketplace through the lens of material dispossession and precarity, which is how many (if not most) individuals of middling status and below experienced commercial and economic change in the period.


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