In King Charles III, Britain has its most culturally attuned monarch for generations.
In 1987, Arthur George Carrick, a previously unknown 39-year-old watercolor painter, submitted a work for consideration in the Summer Exhibition, one of Britain’s most important art shows.
Held annually at the Royal Academy in London, the exhibition gives amateurs a chance to see their efforts displayed alongside paintings and sculpture by world famous artists. Thousands of Britons submit works each year. Almost all of them are rejected.
Carrick’s piece was simple and traditional — a tiny watercolor of farmhouses and a few trees beneath a pale blue sky — but the show’s curators clearly saw something special in it. They chose it over 12,250 other entries to go into the show.
What the curators didn’t know was that they’d been deceived. “Arthur George Carrick” was a pseudonym. The real painter was the man who on Saturday will be crowned as Britain’s king.
Charles sketching in Bhutan in the 1980s. He has paid for artists to accompany him on foreign trips.Credit…Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images
Throughout his life, King Charles III has involved himself in British cultural life, not only a maker of art but as an avid spectator and patron.
In Britain, the king is often portrayed as a cultural traditionalist, because of his well-known love of classical architecture, and some of his passions chime with that image: He has co-founded a drawing school and an academy for traditional arts, and he goes to the opera regularly.
But many of his tastes are less highbrow, as befits Britain’s first king to grow up in the age of mass media. In interviews, Charles has said he is a fan of Barbra Streisand’s music and movies, and surreal comedy shows including “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “The Goon Show.” He is also a self-professed lover of music by Leonard Cohen and The Three Degrees, a Philadelphia soul act.
Charles dancing onstage with The Three Degrees, a Philadelphia soul trio, at his 30th birthday in 1978.Credit…Doug McKenzie/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
With these varied interests, Charles is the most culturally attuned monarch for well over a century. If Queen Elizabeth II, who died last year, was more interested in horse racing than the thousands of performances she sat through during her reign, Charles’s fascination with the arts and entertainment echoes the concerns of several much earlier holders of the throne.
In the 17th century, Charles I, a patron of painters including Rubens and Van Dyck, built one of Europe’s most important art collections. His son, Charles II, reopened Britain’s theaters after puritan insurgents forced their lengthy closure, and laid the groundwork for what is today’s West End. In the 18th century, George III built a superlative collection of 65,000 books that formed the heart of the British Library.
But where previous monarchs were known for their passions, Charles has often been defined by the things he doesn’t like. Starting in the 1980s when he was Prince of Wales, Charles used speeches, books and television programs to repeatedly attack modern architecture and promote alternatives based on classical forms. On several occasions, he intervened directly seeking to halt glass-and-steel building projects. In the process, he’s courted the ire of British architects, some of whom have labeled his meddling unconstitutional.
On Saturday, the king’s love of music will be on full display. He has commissioned 12 works for the coronation ceremony, including an “Agnus Dei” for choir by the London-born American composer Tarik O’Regan. In a phone interview, O’Regan said that once you “delved into Charles’s likes and dislikes,” a picture emerged of a man whose interests were “obviously nuanced.”
“He’s someone who is clearly very affected by music and other arts,” O’Regan said.
Charles has repeatedly said that his love of culture was stirred by his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who took him to the Royal Opera House in London to see his first ballet at age 7. “I remember being so completely transfixed by the magic of it,” Charles said during a 2018 radio interview.
Charles in Melbourne, Australia, in the 1980s. The future king learned to play cello at boarding school.Credit…Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images
The Queen Mother also encouraged Charles’s love of classical music and the future monarch learned the trumpet in his boarding school orchestra. Charles recalled that he thought he was doing well at the instrument until a teacher interrupted a rehearsal by shouting, “Those trumpets! Stop those trumpets!” He switched to playing cello.
At Trinity College, part of Cambridge University, Charles played in the orchestra and performed in comedy revues as a member of the college’s theatrical society.
Now 74, Charles is more comfortable as a spectator than a performer. He often attends the opera and ballet in London — a spokesman for the Royal Opera House said the king visited last month in a private capacity — and regularly watches Royal Shakespeare Company productions at the theater group’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. (Charles is patron of both organizations.)
Charles, in 2016, at a Royal Shakespeare Company event to celebrate 400 years since the playwright’s death, with the actors Judi Dench and David Suchet.Credit…Helen Maybanks via Royal Shakespeare Company
Prince Harry, in his recent autobiography “Spare,” recalled accompanying his father to see the Royal Shakespeare Company on several occasions. “We’d turn up unannounced, watch whatever play they were putting on,” Harry writes. “It didn’t matter to Pa.” (Harry says his father’s favorite play is “Henry V.”)
Masterpieces have surrounded Charles since his earliest days. The royal family’s art collection includes 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, among other treasures. Yet in “Royal Paintbox,” a 2013 documentary, Charles said he didn’t think twice about those artworks until he was a teenager. Then, “suddenly all the pictures on the walls, the furniture, came into focus,” Charles said.
He received no formal art training, according to the documentary, and taught himself to paint in watercolors. By the time Charles secretly entered his work into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, in 1987, he had been making pictures of rural scenes and royal residences for decades. (A selection of the king’s watercolors are on public display at Sandringham House, one of Charles’s homes, in the county of Norfolk, though Oct. 12.)
“Sandringham House, Norfolk” (1991), by King Charles III. Forty watercolors by the king are on public display at that country house through Oct. 12.Credit…Joe Giddens/PA Images, via Getty Images
Charles has also paid for artists to accompany him on foreign tours, producing records of the events that are added to the royal art collection. Diarmuid Kelley, a figurative painter who went with Charles on a 2014 tour of Mexico and Colombia, said that he was told to paint whatever he liked, though courtiers urged him to include Charles in the pictures. Kelley said he sketched street scenes and a temple visit — “nothing outlandish or avant-garde,” he said.
“Monarchy is by its very nature conservative,” Kelley said. “You can’t embrace anti-establishment artists when you’re part of the establishment.”
O’Regan, the composer, said that regardless of what people thought of Charles’s taste, it was a good moment to have an arts lover on Britain’s throne. Government subsidies for some cultural organizations were slashed last year, and O’Regan said that the new music the king had commissioned for the coronation was “a clear statement about the importance of the arts.”
Kings shouldn’t instruct governments, O’Regan added, but Charles was at least showing that culture mattered.