With the Coronation set to take place this weekend, we revisit our Great British Brands 2023 cover, which features a special depiction of King Charles III. Here Lucy Cleland talks to artist Léo Caillard about his approach to the subject and why he was the perfect artist to do it (despite being French).
On 8 September last year, our nation bid farewell to the second Elizabethan age, when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96. To say that it marked the end of an era is an understatement par excellence.
It struck us therefore as we were planning the cover for this edition of Great British Brands that there could only be one person to front it, especially given our theme of ‘Brave New World’. King Charles III has come to the throne at a time of such serious tipping points over climate change, social division, and democracy even – as well as being our first monarch of the digital age – that we can only wonder how he will navigate his way along such a precarious path. Will his mother’s stoicism and devotion to duty be enough? Will he attempt to reinvent the royal brand and remain relevant (the currency we seem to currently trade on)? With his son Harry lobbing hand grenades from across the pond and profiting from family trauma, our King would seem to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. And yet his role is as iconic as they come.
Short of scoring an interview and shoot with the King himself, we wanted to find a way to interpret this in an image, so we set to work to find the perfect artist to capture him creatively – someone who was contending with the past, the future, and our digital age. First stop was a call with Marine Tanguy, who founded the art sector’s leading talent agency MTArt, which represents an amazingly eclectic roster of artists and some of the finest of our generation.
Our eyes were immediately drawn to one of her artists, Leo Caillard, whose work is defined by the intersection between the classical and the modern, and his obsession with time. He is also a digital artist as well as a marble sculptor. Bingo. And, combined with Leo’s passion for Great Britain, the universality of the GBB theme and his veneration for the subject, we knew he was the right match for the commission at hand. After all, he says, ‘Really, we are all the same in a way, it is just our language that changes. We have the same goals as artists, and we are just doing meaningful things that can help others to live with themselves happily.’
Leo was born in 1985 and always knew that being an artist was not his decision, but a recognition that ‘it was something that went beyond all my other desires. It was not my choice, it was my duty.’ (Just like our King.)
From his visits to museums as a child, he became obsessed with the classical sculptures that filled them and started to question why they seemed so relevant to him. ‘Because they are us,’ he explains. ‘We come from this classical Western legacy and it infiltrates our society and way of thinking still. We are concerned with the ego [like them] and the modern-day selfie is really the direct interpretation of the classical statue.’
His series ‘Hipster in Stone’ sees classical statues adorned with sunglasses, shaggy beards and other accessories that make them relatable to us now. The cold marble figures from the Louvre are no longer from an arcane age of classical reverence but they are us – our reflection. It’s a whole new way of looking at the past – and the future. Just like our King, who has the same dilemma – neither wanting to appear as though he’s from an untouchable bygone age but needing to retain reverence, too, and to be emblematic of a lineage that has helped define who we are as a country.
Leo’s ‘Wave Stone’ series takes the traditional marble bust and distorts it in order to question our relationship with reality and virtuality. ‘We live in a society of vibration, of screens, and internet data,’ he says. ‘It’s all about waves. And I wanted to try to make the statue disappear, like when your screen is glitching because you aren’t receiving the message well.’ It is not just computer waves that he’s referencing either, but indeed a deeper philosophy of spiritual vibration. ‘In our society owning things matters. We believe in real things giving us security and material comfort. But these objects don’t fill our minds, or feed who we are as people. Only vibration and the link you can get with others will bring you happiness.’ It’s vibration of connection virtually and spiritually that is being addressed here, all bound up in aesthetically beautiful works that combine past and present.
Leo believes that digital art, thanks to the blockchain and NFTs which provide authentication and eliminate fakes, is finally becoming more mainstream and will soon be an entirely normal way to collect and sell art. ‘It’s a revolution but like most revolutions, it soon becomes the norm. Brands are beginning to wake up to the huge marketing potential and importance of the blockchain as we move away from owning so much stuff. Digital answers this, allowing us to own valuable things but not just physical ones.’ Leo says that the digital work he produces is no different, or less valuable, than the physical work. ‘It’s not the same tools, but it’s the same concept,’ he says.
These themes are why he chose to illuminate our King with a neon halo and to create him digitally. ‘In classical painting, the halo designates the saints through the golden circle depicted around the faces,’ he explains, and while not saying that the King is a saint, the royal crown is its direct descendant, which Leo has chosen to make modern, futuristic and ‘closer to the social meaning of halo: the fact of shining in society, of having a luminous “aura”. I wanted to represent a contemporary statue of King Charles III, made of marble but shiny with modernity. A future-oriented king.’
As an artist, Leo Caillard stands at the convergence of huge societal and artistic change. He is trying to understand it, represent it and make it, overall, beautiful, and something we want. Just like our King.
Artistic Direction: Nicole Smallwood
Photography: Dovile Babraviciute