A Frame-Up? Charles & Di's Latest Brushes with Art May Be Unpaletteable
Poor Di. Poor Charles. If it’s not her eclectic wardrobe, it’s his rapidly expanding bald spot. Now, it seems, British aesthetes have found another reason to jump on the royal couple’s case with both feet—two new portraits of Diana’s marvelous mug and Charles’s painting of a rural landscape. The artwork has critics nattering nastily and the British public crowding the exhibitions to see what the royal fuss is about.
It was the public display of the Prince’s artistry that set tongues wagging the fastest. “It’s the smallest picture with the most people around it,” observed one Fleet Street wag of Charles’s miniwork, now on display at London’s Royal Academy. The Prince, an enthusiastic amateur painter, had anonymously submitted a tiny 3½-by 3½-inch watercolor titled Farm Building in Norfolk for the academy’s annual summer exhibition. He signed the painting with his customary “C” and entered it under the name Arthur G. Carrick. (Arthur and George are his third and fourth Christian names; Earl of Carrick is one of his many titles.) Well, wouldn’t you know it? The watercolor was one of 1,320 chosen for display at the academy out of 13,570 entries.
Did the academy’s selection committee know the gold-framed painting was the work of His Royal Highness? The prestigious Times thinks so. After some investigative digging, the paper hinted that the committee had at first rejected the Prince’s painting, but upon decoding his signature had hastily reconsidered. Not so, maintained academy officials. “It is a modest, serious work which in my view is of quite considerable talent,” said president Roger de Grey. (Not reached for comment were the 12,250 entrants who failed to make the cut.)
While cynics were having fun tweaking the Prince’s work, serious art lovers were dishing out decidedly mixed reviews of two new visions of Diana. The first Di portrait, with which most observers have expressed disappointment, was painted by Richard Foster and commissioned by the Glasgow Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, of which the Princess is the patron. “The artist has made the Princess too demure and done nothing to capture her new poise and confidence,” complained London’s Daily News. Brian Sewell, the acidulous art critic at the London Evening Standard, proclaimed simply: “It ain’t art.” Countered Foster, who had eight one-hour sittings with Di: “I tried to catch her as she was when she started her job at the college [in 1984]. I wanted to catch that young look.” A limp defense of the portrait, if defense it was, came from Professor A.C. Kennedy, president of the Royal College, who observed diplomatically, “People have expressed varying views about it.” Diana is not one of them; Foster has not heard a word from the Princess.
She has been far more forthcoming about her portrait by John Merton, an artist who had previously painted the Duke of Kent and an assortment of the rich and the titled. Commissioned by a group of businessmen to hang in the Cardiff, Wales city hall, the oil painting consists of three different views of Diana’s head or, as the Daily Mail gushed, “a striking threefold tribute to her beauty.” Diana was so gaga over it that she wrote a four-page thank-you note to Merton, who had sent her a full-size reproduction of the original. Below her signature, the Princess added an artistic flourish of her own—a drawing of a sun with a smile on its face.
Critics, however, seemed less than infatuated. “Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s disgusting,” said Sewell, who suggested that the Di triple-header was better suited to a shampoo ad. Art critic William Feaver in the Observer wrote that Merton made Diana look “every inch the icon.”
Unexposed as yet to such critical scrutiny is one other talented member of the Kensington Palace household. After giving a brief talk at an art gala last week, Prince Charles returned to his table and showed British TV personality Joan Bakewell some wild scrawls on the back of his script. “This is Prince Harry‘s work,” said Charles. “My son is learning to draw—all over my speeches.”