A portraitist fit for a king (but not a president)

Few famous Britons, it seems, can resist the chance to be painted by Jonathan Yeo. David Attenborough, the 97-year-old legend of the show, was among those who recently climbed the spiral stairs to his cozy studio, tucked away at the end of an alley in west London, to pose for Mr Yeo, one of its most famous characters. of Great Britain. portrait artists.

However, when it came to painting his last portrait, that of King Charles III, the artist had to address the subject.

Mr Yeo hired a lorry to transport his 7.5 x 5.5 foot canvas to the king's London residence, Clarence House. There, he erected a platform so he could apply the final brushstrokes to the strikingly contemporary portrait, which depicts a uniformed Charles against an ethereal backdrop.

The painting, which will be unveiled at Buckingham Palace in mid-May, is the first large-scale depiction of Charles since he became king. It will likely reconfirm Yeo's status as his generation's go-to portraitist for the British great and good, as well as actors, writers, businessmen and celebrities around the world. His privately commissioned works can fetch around $500,000 each.

Painting the king's portrait also marks a return to normality for Mr Yeo, 53, who last year suffered a near-fatal heart attack which he blames on the lingering effects of cancer in his early 20s. The parallel to his argument was not lost on him: Charles, 75, announced in February that he had been diagnosed with cancer, just 18 months into his reign.

Mr Yeo said he did not learn of the king's illness until after he completed the painting. If nothing else, the portrayal of him is that of a vigorous and authoritative monarch. But it gave Mr Yeo a deeper empathy for a man he got to know in four sessions, starting in June 2021, when Charles was still the Prince of Wales and continuing after the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, and his coronation last May. .

“You see physical changes in people, depending on how things are going,” Mr. Yeo said in his studio, where he had decorously pushed the still-unveiled painting away from the gaze of curious visitors. “Age and experience suited him,” he said. “His behavior definitely changed after he became king.”

The portrait was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Drapers, a medieval guild of wool and cloth merchants that is now a philanthropic body. It will be displayed in Drapers' Hall, the company's baronial quarters in London's financial district, which houses a gallery of monarchs from King George III to Queen Victoria. Mr. Yeo's Charles will add a contemporary twist to that classic lineup.

“What Jonny has managed to do is combine the elusive quality of majesty with an angularity,” said Philip Mould, a friend and art historian who saw the painting and called it “a kind of unicorn.”

Mr Yeo is no stranger to portraying royalty. He painted Charles's wife, Queen Camilla, who he said was a delight, and his father, Prince Philip, who was less so. “He was a bit of a caged tiger,” Mr Yeo recalled. “I can't imagine he was an easy father, but he was funny as a subject.”

However, a sitting monarch was a first for Yeo, whose subjects have included prime ministers (Tony Blair and David Cameron), actors (Dennis Hopper and Nicole Kidman), artists (Damien Hirst), tycoons (Rupert Murdoch) and activists (Malala Yousafzai).

Mr Yeo said there was an element of “futurology” in his work. Some of his subjects gained greater fame after he painted them; others have faded. Some, like Kevin Spacey, who was tried and acquitted of sexual misconduct, have fallen into disrepute. The National Portrait Gallery in Washington has returned Spacey's portrait of Mr. Yeo, taken when the actor played a ruthless politician in the “House of Cards” series.

Looking back at his A-list arguments, Mr. Yeo has developed some rules of thumb about his art. Older faces are easier to capture than younger ones because they are more lived in. The best portraits capture visual characteristics that remain relevant even as the person ages. And the only bad topics are the boring ones.

“He didn't want me to pose, he just wanted me to talk,” said Giancarlo Esposito, the American actor best known for playing elegant villains in the crime classic “Breaking Bad” and Guy Ritchie's recent TV series, “The Gentlemen.” “As an actor, Esposito said, he was skilled at projecting a character, “but there was no way to fool him.”

“It was an opportunity to be Giancarlo, unmasked,” said Esposito, who said he last posed for a portrait as a child at a county fair.

A debonair figure with a quick smile and stylish glasses pushed back on his forehead, Mr Yeo learned to appreciate the charms and foibles of public figures as the son of one. His father, Tim Yeo, was a Conservative member of Parliament and minister under Prime Minister John Major, whose career was blighted by professional and personal scandals.

At first, the elder Mr Yeo had little patience for his son's artistic dreams. “My father definitely thought I should get a decent job,” he said, not giving him any money when he took a year off after high school to try to become a painter. Mr Yeo's early efforts showed his lack of formal training and “obviously I didn't sell any photos”.

Then, in 1993, at the end of his second year at university in Kent, he was struck by Hodgkin's disease. Mr Yeo delved deeper into painting as a way of coping with the disease. He got a break when a friend of his father – Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican archbishop and anti-apartheid activist – commissioned a portrait of him.

“He asked me mostly out of pity,” Mr Yeo recalled. “But the result was spectacular, better than anyone expected.”

Commissions began to pour in and Mr Yeo became sought after for his revealing portraits of famous faces. In 2013, the National Portrait Gallery in London mounted a mid-career exhibition of his work.

“He brought the portrait back,” said Nick Jones, the founder of Soho House, a chain of private clubs, which partnered with Mr. Yeo to hang his and other artists' paintings on its walls. “Portraits have always been such severe things,” Mr. Jones said. “He was able to add layers and bring out people's personalities.”

It helps that Mr Yeo is well-connected, prolific and resourceful. He is clear-eyed about the business side of his art. “No matter how you wear it,” he said, “to some extent, you're in the luxury goods business.”

Successful but creatively restless, Mr Yeo began to experiment. When aides to President George W. Bush approached him about making a portrait and later abandoned the project, he decided to do it anyway, but as a collage of images cut from pornographic magazines.

Bush's portrait went viral on the web, and Yeo created collages of other public figures, including Hugh Hefner and Silvio Berlusconi. It was provocative but time-consuming work—she bought stacks of skin magazines to assemble enough raw material—and his supplies ran out when, she said, “the iPad killed the magazine industry porn”.

Mr Yeo was also drawn to the uses of technology in art. He worked on design projects at Apple. He painted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver via FaceTime during the pandemic. And he created an app that offers a virtual reality tour of his studio, a well-appointed space in an old laboratory that once produced organs.

But one Sunday night in March 2023, Mr Yeo's busy life came to a terrifying halt. He went into cardiac arrest: his heart stopped for more than two minutes. Mr Yeo said he believes the crisis was linked to his cancer treatment decades earlier. Although he did not see a bright light at the end of a tunnel, as others with near-death experiences have described, he recalled a palpable sensation of floating out of his body.

Mr Yeo, who is married with two daughters, has been clinging to life. After recovering, he found that his calling as a painter – temporarily sidetracked by his diversions into technology and other pursuits – had been rekindled. Soon he was immersed in portraits of Charles, Mr. Esposito and Mr. Attenborough.

“It definitely makes you feel, 'We're not joking anymore,'” Mr. Yeo said. “It's like dodging a bullet.”

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