This Coronation portrait of the King is perilously close to insulting

A detail from Sacha Jafri's portrait of King Charles III - Francois Nel/Getty Images
A detail from Sacha Jafri's portrait of King Charles III - Francois Nel/Getty Images

What do gaudy graffiti hearts and a stock photo of a recycling symbol have in common? According to British artist Sacha Jafri, both are appropriate symbols of Charles III. In a new portrait, commissioned by the UAE British Embassy as a gift for the ruling family of Dubai, the newly-crowned monarch sits at the centre of a cacophonous collage of photographs, cartoonish drawings, and words.

These many images – Jafri has included everything from snapshots of Penny Mordaunt holding the sword at the coronation, to the logos for the Commonwealth and the Prince’s Trust – are meant to represent Charles’s “philosophies, concerns, passions, and personal visions of the past, present, and future”. Unfortunately, Jafri’s faux-naïve style of bright colours and loose paintwork undermines these lofty aims: the overall effect is not a depiction of Charles’s many interests, but, rather, an undignified attempt at “coolness”.

Painted in a style that consciously apes street art by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat — the cartoon crowns that hover over Charles’s head are the most overt allusion to the more radical artist’s signature symbol — Jafri has attempted to incorporate the new King’s interests.

Next to Charles’s head is a stock photo of bare feet: one of several not-so-subtle nods to his environmentalism, along with graphics about the “economy circular” and “renewable energy sources”. Above the King, and written in childish capital letters with an arrow pointing towards the sovereign’s sceptre, is the phrase “defender of the faith”; just across the canvas, and helpfully labelled, are the symbols of the world’s major religions. These inclusions serve to illustrate the new King’s philosophies, but the overall effect is less a royal portrait than it is a poorly-executed school poster.

In another break from the tradition of royal portraiture, Charles is far from the only subject of the painting. In the top right-hand corner — and next to a more traditional painting of the King’s profile — there are miniature portraits of the late Queen on her coronation day and the state opening of Parliament.

Artist Sacha Jafri with his portrait of King Charles - Getty
Artist Sacha Jafri with his portrait of King Charles - Getty

Dotted across the rest of the canvas are snapshots of Queen Camilla, Princess Anne, Prince William, Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murthy, and even the crowds present at the coronation. In comparison to the more subdued, and dignified, solo portrait by Alastair Barford unveiled earlier this year, Jafri has shown the King as part of his context, both royal and otherwise. What may have been a laudable, democratic aim only ends up making the overcrowded canvas yet more chaotic.

The portrait of Charles at the centre — and separated from the rest of the canvas by an amorphous blue blob — is drawn from the official Coronation photographs taken by Hugo Burnand. The King has the same stern glare, and holds both the orb and the sceptre. But in comparison to both Burnand’s Coronation photograph and the portrait he took for the King’s 60th birthday, this version of the newly-crowned Charles appears stressed, drawn, and assaulted by the weight of colour and carnage elsewhere on the canvas. For a monarch who cares so much about design and aesthetics, this portrait is perilously close to insulting.

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