“The Kindly King”: The First Portrait of Charles III Shows Him Wearing an Indigenous Bracelet
Buckingham Palace has revealed the first painted portrait of King Charles III just ahead of his first state visit to Germany. He is seen here at a banquet at Bellevue Palace. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Royal portraits have always been intended to both idealize and glorify the sovereign and to capture the social ideals of the era in which they reign. Buckingham Palace has revealed the first painted portrait of King Charles III just ahead of his first state visit, to Germany (the French leg of the tour was cancelled due to that country’s raging internal protests over pension reform). The oil painting, by Alastair Barford, is the artist’s attempt to portray, in his words, “the kindly king.” The portrait is to be formally released on the cover of a publication called The Illustrated Coronation Edition.
Charles is now 74, so the crafting of his image begins in grandfather territory. Not for him, the youthful paintings of his mother, who acceded at the age of 25. Most of the official portraits (paintings and photographic sittings) of Elizabeth featured crowns or tiaras and much fine and showy jewelry. That was the idealized vision of a British Queen in the 1950s, and Elizabeth’s image, while it shifted over the years as she aged, remained quite firmly rooted in the symbols of the Crown. Like her formidable female forbears — Elizabeth I and Victoria — Elizabeth II was a woman ruling in a man’s world and the splendid accessories of power were critical to fixing their respective images in the public eye.
Times have changed. Charles comes to the throne in a time when the rules have been amended so his granddaughter did not lose her place in the line of succession to her younger brother. Not just that, but we live in a world that the monarchy is being forced to change alongside, rather than the other way around. Modernization, inclusion and diversity have to be the orders of the day for palace protocol, if there is any hope for the ancient institution, and its protomodern/post-colonial counterpart the Commonwealth, to survive.
Thus, we have Barford depicting Charles as observed in an action setting. Great optics there! Too busy in the run-up to the coronation to sit for a formal style portrait. The artist, 36, who also painted a portrait of the Queen in 2015, was able to study the King at a Buckingham Palace reception promoting biodiversity. Thus we have the symbolic jewelry in the piece: a bracelet given that night to the King by Domingo Peas, an Amazon Indigenous leader.
Charles could be called out for pandering here, but he really shouldn’t be: climate change and protecting nature has been his life’s work, since long before it became popular as a cause. The choice to highlight a gift from the leader of an Amazon Indigenous tribe is especially politically deft, since it doesn’t involve heritage or land that was subject to historical British colonial conquest.
Barford told The Times of London that he wanted to capture the King with a sympathetic expression. “I wished to capture his warmth and sensitivity, the empathy which came across in his interactions with the people he met.” He told Tatler the assignment was “a terrifying honour,” and admits he battled through his internal preconceptions of “the Idea of the King” and tried to find a fresh way in reconciling the fact that he was such “an enduring presence” in all of our lives.
The King wears one of his signature Saville Row navy pinstripe suits, with a pink tie and matching pocket square. By contrast, the portrait Barford painted of the Queen was her in maximum royal regalia — wearing the robes of the Garter, hung with medals and bejeweled chains of office and featuring an enormous feathered hat.
Several new photographic portraits of the King have been released since his accession. One, of the King with the red boxes of state affairs, was taken just three days after the Queen’s death. Another, a portrait of Charles and Queen Consort Camilla and the new Prince and Princess of Wales, all clad in black suiting, was released the night before the Queen’s funeral. A new dual photo portrait of the King and Queen Consort Camilla was released to be sent out to citizens of the Commonwealth who have attained 100 years of age. And a Bank of England portrait, the basis for new stamps from 2024 onward, was also released.
The timing for the reveal of this first portrait is also well chosen, as on its heels has followed a wave of statesmanlike imagery from his arrival in Germany. The whole trip will provide solid and majestic visuals of Charles being celebrated by allies on the continent in the run-up to his coronation on May 6.
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