A portrait fit for (no) kings?

Surveying contemporary portraiture in the context of the coronation

The coronation of Kings Charles III is a seminal moment for the British monarchy. Rumblings of anti-royalist uprisings also suggest it is a moment to question its role, but it needn’t be overthrown – as long as it can move with changing times as trees bend with the wind.

Along with the coronation procession, the Mall will also be hosting The Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ 132nd Annual Exhibition at Mall Galleries, which opened yesterday. We are similarly facing a moment of change, both for the society itself (following Elizabeth II’s death we are currently without a royal patron) and concerning the relevance of the portrait today.

Traditionally, portraits and portrait painters have embellished and reinforced hierarchies, be they aristocratic, royal or just political. These structures have, over the years, been augmented by others such as celebrity. To say that artists have been complicit in these establishment structures is an understatement and to some extent they are still complicit.

This year’s RP Annual Exhibition might suggest that things are changing, however. Of the 200 or so paintings in the exhibition very few fall into the categories outlined above. Instead, artists are choosing their own subjects. They are painting ‘ordinary’ people.  This, I think, is because they are interested in how a portrait connects us to others, to ourselves and how it reflects an endless fascination with what it means to be human.

Right: Anthony Connolly (photograph: Matt Towers)

It might be that the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum. There is a sound economic basis to the traditional model of the commission. The painted portrait also plays a part in chronicling those playing the most high profile and influential role in our society. But this customer client or ‘artist historian’ model doesn’t really fit the shifting nature of the painted portrait as we see it in this exhibition. 

We can’t be certain as to what might happen next but, like the British monarchy, we are at a very live moment in the history of figurative painting and portrait painting in particular.

In the same way that the coronation will take the temperature of the British people when it comes to their continuing acceptance (or not) of the monarchy, the exhibition on the Mall is without doubt the most comprehensive survey of the state of portraiture anywhere.