Too bald, too mad, too red … How royal portraits get it so wrong

<span>Artist Jonathan Yeo and King Charles III at the unveiling of Yeo's portrait in Buckingham Palace.</span><span>Photograph: Aaron Chown/AP</span>
Artist Jonathan Yeo and King Charles III at the unveiling of Yeo's portrait in Buckingham Palace.Photograph: Aaron Chown/AP

Why do reports always say that a portrait of someone great and good has been “unveiled”? The word is an empty metaphor that turns the first viewing into a ceremony; it also mystifies the entire procedure and makes it somewhat morbid.

Portraits of kings, presidents, prime ministers and the like are effigies, meant to replace the mortal being. Once the official image has been fixed in place, the living subject can be sent off to die. The unveiled portrait draws a veil over another ceremonial occasion: what we are looking at is posterity’s verdict, so in effect we are attending a funeral.

At Buckingham Palace the other day, no veils or theatrical curtains were parted to disclose Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of King Charles, which shows him – depending on your whim as a viewer – either afloat in a lake of blood or undergoing incineration in a fiery furnace.

“That is quite red indeed,” said the flushed subject. Queen Camilla told Yeo: “You’ve got him.”

But what exactly had Yeo got? The king’s grey, worried face is detached from the uniform into which the rest of him has been shoe-horned, which implies that his military role is an exercise in dressing up; a butterfly flaps its flimsy wings above his shoulder, hinting at some of his more air-headed pantheistic enthusiasms.

Portraits are supposed to tell complimentary lies about their subjects, which is why they have institutional value. That is also their appeal to narcissists like Oscar Wilde’s hero in The Picture of Dorian Gray, who first delights in a beautiful replica of himself and then grumbles because it will outlast him, remaining young while he grows old and ugly. The etiquette of the genre requires the painter to be deferential, either in awe of, or in love with, the subject. Andy Warhol’s silk-screened portraits of movie stars painted glossy personae, not actual, imperfect faces.

Nowadays painters tend not to be so obsequious: a portrait after all is about the artist’s attitude to the subject. Yeo himself is a wily and sometimes impudent practitioner of the art, and in 2007, when a commission to paint George W Bush fell through, he subtly revenged himself by collaging a portrait out of clippings from pornographic magazines, so that Bush’s grinning face is actually composed of snatches from the pink erogenous zones of several flagrant women who would surely not have voted for him.

“Is that it? Are you sure?” barked Prince Philip at the end of a sitting with Yeo in 2006. By contrast with his towering blow-up of King Charles, Yeo had squeezed Philip onto a canvas a foot square and given every angle of his taut, armoured face an edge of highlighted aggression. Despite his thin-lipped grin, Yeo’s Philip looks like a grenade with a loose pin.

The kind of people who deign to sit for portraits think of themselves, to quote a Shakespearean sonnet, as “lords and owners of their faces”, and they tend be riled if they don’t see their self-image reflected back. Velázquez painted Pope Innocent X as a shrewd and wary politician, not a holy father: “It’s too true, it’s too true,” the subject allegedly sighed when he saw it. The portrait was not placed on public display, but at least it survived.

Winston Churchill’s widow is said to have burned a portrait by Graham Sutherland which made the bellicose old bulldog look like a derelict grubbed from the gutter, and the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Breslauer destroyed Lucian Freud’s portrait of him because the painter had the temerity to notice he was bald.

Last week, Gina Rinehart – a Trump-loving iron ore magnate, enthroned at the top of Australia’s rich list – called for the National Gallery in Canberra to remove her portrait from a display by the indigenous painter Vincent Namatjira, who has given her a pair of mad eyes, a mouth smeared with the remains of a vampire’s snack, and a continental shelf of chins sagging onto a chest that fortunately remains outside the frame.

Namatjira, no respecter of either wealth or rank, has his own view of Australia’s hand-me-down head of state. Last year he painted King Charles sweltering in the arid outback, his chest festooned with unearned medals, his hand on a sword that is a theatrical prop, his head liquefying in the heat as it pokes out of a fussy Elizabethan ruff. The portrait is literally an act of lèse-majesté, a reappropriation of Australian terrain by one of its rightful owners. “I see myself as royal,” Namatjira has cheekily said.

Yeo’s vision of Charles stops short of causing this kind of offence, but its wash of infuriated colour and that transitory butterfly challenge viewers to reach their own conclusions about the man, his temperament and his right to permanence.

Dorian Gray has a better understanding of the balance of power between painter and sitter. “There is something fatal about a portrait,” he tells Basil Hallward when refusing to model for him a second time. The fatality is Gray’s own: beautiful and powerful only briefly, he is a temporary king.

Portraits are effigies. Once the official image has been fixed in place, the living subject can be sent off to die

In what sounds like an act of desperation, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden last week renewed his offer to distribute photographs of King Charles to hospitals, universities, job centres, coroners’ courts and to any other establishment keen to proclaim its loyalism.

Could this be the government’s attempt to atone for Yeo’s teasing? Small hope: all those photographs will fade into invisibility on bureaucratic walls, merging with the office furniture. The truth is that portraiture and monarchy are alike: irrelevant and anachronistic. The time has come for both to take the veil, or for us to close the curtains on them.