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The first official portrait of King Charles III is unveiled at Buckingham Palace


This week, the first official portrait of King Charles III as King was unveiled at Buckingham Palace, and the red painting by the artist Jonathan Yeo has evoked strong feelings from the public, ranging from awe to disgust, so we have called British journalist, artist and royal watcher, Bidisha Mamata. Welcome to the program.

BIDISHA MAMATA: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Help me describe this painting for people who haven't seen it.

MAMATA: Oh, it's a swirling scarlet and crimson delight from end to end, with King Charles' face looking remarkably handsome and youthful, emerging from a, gosh, psychedelic, red...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MAMATA: ...Patterned wallpaper background - volcanic flames?

INSKEEP: So conventional is not the word, but you used the word delight. That is not the only word that's been used for this, is it?

MAMATA: Well, when you're a royal watcher, you have to be extremely diplomatic about everything.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MAMATA: And Jonathan Yeo has certainly pushed the boundaries of painting and portraiture, but if you look at the face emerging from the depths of the red stuff, it's still King Charles looking incredibly kindly, handsome, authoritative - still very royal.

INSKEEP: The fact that it is not a conventional painting brings to mind the portraits of the Obamas that were unveiled a few years ago here in the United States, and there were mixed feelings about that. How much debate has there been away from the folks who need to be diplomatic?

MAMATA: Quite a lot of debate, in fact, because the royal family have a very tough task ahead of them. Since the birth of mass media, we're very used to seeing them on TV, in press photographs, magazines, newspapers. Then they have to bring in a painter, because, of course, having your royal portrait painted is a very long-standing tradition. Elizabeth I was the great self-branding, marketing genius.


MAMATA: And yet, of course, do we need that now? We don't, so the painter has to bring a little bit of - what's the word - idiosyncrasy to it.

INSKEEP: Do you feel that the red in this painting - and again, overwhelmingly red - his uniform seems to be red, the backdrop is red, everything but his face is red. Does this send some coherent message about the King or the royal family?

MAMATA: I think King Charles has a little bit of a reputational issue, which is that he's seen as being very much a 19th-century figure - quite staid, quite fusty, and I think Jonathan Yeo is trying to say, no, there's passion here under the surface, even though you may not see it. What's surprising to me, however, is that King Charles actually loves fashion. He's very, very stylish - in an admittedly retro way - and red is not part of his palette. We see him in traditional country gentleman colors, soft heathers and heaths and sages, so perhaps King Charles was as surprised to see his portrait as we are.

INSKEEP: This is an unfair question to ask with 30 seconds left, but as an artist yourself, how might you have approached this task, had it fallen to you?

MAMATA: I would do it straight, and I would try my best with what was in front of me. I think that trying to get extremely left-field and punky, it might work if you just throw in a whole bunch of crazy ideas. Jonathan Yeo has trodden a very careful line, which is the face itself is traditional - it's flattering, it's accurate, and then he's given himself a little bit of a margin to be crazy about it and bring in the red.

INSKEEP: Bidisha Mamata, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

MAMATA: Thank you very much.

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