The Story Behind King Charles’ Portrait

By Ellie Smith

5 days ago

Jonathan Yeo's painting is loaded with symbolism

Yesterday, the first portrait of King Charles III since his coronation was unveiled. Painted by British artist Jonathan Yeo, the work is over eight feet tall, depicting the monarch looking down at the viewer against a sea of red brushstrokes. Reactions to the painting have been mixed – and even Charles himself was initially taken aback by the bold colour. However, it makes more sense when you delve into the symbolism.

King Charles III Official Portrait Unveiled

Who Is Jonathan Yeo?

Jonathan Yeo is one of the most prestigious portrait artists of the modern day. He has painted a string of famous faces spanning the worlds of entertainment, politics and royalty, including Sir David Attenborough, Idris Elba, Nicole Kidman and David Cameron. Yeo also painted Queen Camilla when she was the Duchess of Cornwall, as well as the late Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip.

‘A photo is a frozen moment,’ Yeo said in an interview with BBC News. ‘What you get when you’re painting a portrait is a bit of time elapsing. When you’re painting a picture, you’re working on it one part at a different time, than another. So instead of a static image, you’ve got lots of different moments captured.

‘Your relationship with the subject evolves as you get to know them. You see them on different days, and people behave differently, they look different on different days, so you can bring different elements of their personality, mixed up in an interesting way. And you’re seeing them with two eyes rather than with a camera, which sees them with one.’


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Royal Family (@theroyalfamily)

How Long Did The Portrait Take?

Charles’ portrait was commissioned in 2020, initially to mark 50 years as a member of The Draper’s Company (in 2022). The first sitting took place in 2021 at Highgrove House, concluding in September 2023 with a session at Clarence House. Yeo also used drawings and photos taken of Charles at his studio in London.

Why Is The Portrait Red?

Yeo has portrayed Charles in the bright red uniform of the Welsh Guards, of which he was made Regimental Colonel in 1975, and these hues are reflected in the background of the portrait. On his website, the artist explains that ‘the vivid colour of the glazes in the background echo the uniform’s bright red tunic, not only resonating with the royal heritage found in many historical portraits but also injecting a dynamic, contemporary jolt into the genre with its uniformly powerful hue’.

Charles’ uniform blends into the red paint, allowing Charles’ face to remain more prominent – a deliberate decision from Yeo to create a greater connection between viewer and subject. ‘As a portrait artist, you get this unique opportunity to spend time with and get to know a subject, so I wanted to minimise the visual distractions and allow people to connect with the human being underneath,’ he said.

What Does The Butterfly Symbolise?

Above one of the King’s shoulders there is a butterfly, which is of course there for a reason. Turns out this was Charles’ idea, which he thought of after being asked to think of a ‘clue’ to summarise his reign for future generations. During a conversation with the King, Yeo said they discussed how it would be ‘nice to have a narrative element which referenced his passion for nature and environment’.

According to Yeo, it also reflects Charles’ ‘personal transformation’ into his role as King (he began the portrait while Charles was still the Prince of Wales). ‘In the context of art history, a butterfly is often the symbol of metamorphosis and rebirth, and thus also parallels the King’s transition from Prince to monarch during the period the portrait was created.’