He wanted his people to enjoy beauty too, and so he announced that the kingdom would hold a painting competition. The top prize was a chest full of treasure and the key to the kingdom, which meant that the owner had the freedom to travel anywhere within the king’s lands, even into the sumptuous palace gardens themselves.
Heralds went out all over the land to announce the competition. From far and wide, people sent in their artwork. Thousands upon thousands of beautiful paintings rained upon the palace. The king soon realised that there were many beautiful pictures. He did not have enough time to look through them all.
“How can we agree on which is the most beautiful?” asked one wise man, “For we all see beauty in different things.”
“Hmm,” said the king, “That is a very good question.” From his balcony he looked down and saw the marketplace full of people. Some market stalls had attracted a big crowd, while others just a few stragglers. “I’ve got it! Let’s put the pictures in the streets!” he exclaimed. “From here, we can see who the people choose as the most beautiful.”
So he asked his wise men to put all of the artwork on display, in the streets of the capitol.
After two weeks, the king and his wise men and women (for this was a very advanced kingdom) looked down from his balcony. In the streets below, many paintings had attracted one or two viewers. But two huge crowds of people could be clearly seen, standing around two different artists.
The king called for his coach.
“The people have chosen!” he said. “There are two clear favourites. Let us go and see which of them we feel is the most beautiful.”
The king’s coach set off at once into the city’s streets.
The first crowd were stood around a man who looked like an artist. He had colourful baggy, silk clothes and long hair. He had many paintings on display and as the people watched, he painted more, furiously. Above his head was a banner which read The Cloud Fancier.
People were holding his pictures and cooing like pigeons. He was a great artist. In each painting, he had captured the shape of a beautiful cloud. Everything about his paintings was perfect; the colours, the light, the shadows.
“Here is one of a Cloud Angel!” announced the artist, and held up his newest work.
“Oooh!” said the people.
“And here… Said the Cloud Fancier, desperately painting away, “Here is a Cloud Palace!”
He held up a picture of a palace made of cloud, which looked remarkably like the king’s palace.
“Oooh!” said the people, again. The king felt inspired by such beautiful work. The artist had already started on his next.
“Stop!” commanded the king. The people turned to see their ruler and bowed. The Cloud Fancier put down his brush.
“You are a remarkable artist!” said the king. And then to his wise men and women he said, “The competition is over. I think we have found our winner.”
The king lifted up his sceptre and stood up. Just as he was about to speak, one of his wise women said “Sire.”
“Yes?” said the king. “Is it important? Can’t you see I am about to reward our winner?”
“Sire,” said the wise woman, “Remember that we saw two crowds from your balcony? Perhaps it would be wise to go and visit the other artist first. Just in case their painting is even more beautiful.”
The king paused. The wise woman was right. The Cloud Fancier had painted some beautiful pictures, but what if the other artist’s were more beautiful? Then the king would look silly for having awarded the prize to the second most beautiful thing in the kingdom.
“You’re right.” said the king. “Your artwork is majestic!” cried the king to the Cloud Fancier. “Truly marvellous! And among the best we have seen. It is possible that you may have painted the most beautiful pictures in the land. Now please excuse us. We will return with our final decision shortly.”
The king and the coach party departed. They raced through the streets, past row upon row of pretty paintings, to go and find the other popular picture.
When they arrived, they were amazed. The artist was a nine-year old boy, who stood holding in his hand an empty frame. A huge crowd of people were waiting their turn, and others were sat listening to an old beggar, who was joyfully talking about the wonderful beauty he had experienced in the boy’s picture.
“This really must be something!” said one wise man. “Look how happy they all are!”
It was true. Everybody who had seen the painting was shining with joy.
The king got down from his coach. The people bowed, and the queue dissolved, making way for the king to be the next in line.
The boy who was the artist bowed too. The people of this kingdom had very good manners, you see.
“Sire!” he said. “May I show you something beautiful?”
“Yes please!” said the king, who had good manners even though he was in charge.
The boy handed the king an empty frame. The frame was simple and made of lovely wood. Inside it was nothing. The king held the frame and looked very puzzled.
“It’s empty!” he proclaimed.
“Yes, Sire,” said the boy. “But if you look, you really will see something beautiful. It’s just that Beauty takes a little to time to arrive. We must learn how to summon her. If I might give you the instructions Sire, you will certainly see the beauty within.”
“By all means!” said the king, who was very confused.
“Hold the frame up, Sire, for two minutes. In that time, please relax and ask for Beauty to appear. Just keep breathing and trust that she will arrive. When you truly trust that she will come, then and only then, will she appear.”
The king did as he was told. He looked through the frame. He waited. He commanded Beauty to appear.
“Nothing’s happening!” he said. Some of the people who had already seen the picture smiled.
“When you truly trust, she will appear,” repeated the boy.
The king returned to looking. Slowly, breath by breath, his mind cleared. He started to relax. He started to feel confident that Beauty would come. But what if she doesn’t? he thought. Oops, he said to himself. I’m not trusting again, am I? He cleared his mind and kept on breathing.
The world softened. Everything started to change shape, before his very eyes.
In the next two minutes, the king saw many beautiful things. He saw the dew glinting on a spider’s web. He caught a quick, shy smile from a young girl. He saw two old friends sharing a sadness. The king sighed. He felt a wonderful feeling in his heart. It was like inspiration mixed with contentment. He breathed into this feeling and was overcome with beauty and love.
The king put the frame down and turned to his wise men. The king’s face was radiant.
“Sire! What did you see! You must tell us!” called the wise men and women. The picture must be wondrous, they thought, for His Majesty to look like that. They had never seen him so happy.
“You must see for yourselves,” said the king, and he sat down on the grass with a big smile.
All afternoon, the people of the kingdom queued to see the beauty within the frame. Thousands of people smiled and shared its pleasure in hugs.
The crowd around the Cloud Fancier soon emptied when they heard of the king’s bliss.
“Where are they all off to?” wondered the Cloud Fancier, and set off to paint his two-hundredth picture, of a Cloud Chicken.
And so the winner of the competition was announced. A nine-year old boy with a picture of nothing had shown beauty to the whole kingdom.
Even the Cloud Fancier stopped painting to see. When everybody was asleep, he snuck down to the boy’s place. The boy was tucked up in bed, but he had left instructions next to the frame.
The Cloud Fancier read them. “Pah!” he exclaimed, “And he calls himself an artist! There is not even a canvas, let alone paint!”
He peeked through the frame. Nothing. He looked again. Still nothing. He stared desperately. Where was this thing of beauty? What did it look like?
“Ridiculous!” he said, after his two minutes were up. “There’s nothing there!”
He threw the frame down and went back to his own paintings. He was angry that a boy with no picture could come first, before his own marvellous work. The people and the king are stupid, he thought. They wouldn’t know great art if it ate them. Then he tried to paint cloud devils but after three attempts, he had made so many mistakes that he snapped all of his paint brushes in frustration and went home alone to cry.
The boy was awarded first prize and the picture frame was given place of honour in the city. Every day, visitors could look through the picture and see the beauty for themselves.
The boy kept some of the treasure and gave the rest to his village, so that there they could build a School Of Art.
The boy enjoyed using the key to the kingdom, and went to visit the king many times. He and the king spent hours walking together in the palace gardens, walking and talking and finding beauty in all kinds of unexpected places.
And as for the Cloud Fancier, he kept on painting. After his ten-thousandth cloud picture he went a little bit crazy and painted himself a Cloud Wife and persuaded a drunken priest to marry them.
It wasn’t until he fell out with his Cloud Wife and punched a hole in her picture and hurt his hand so much that he couldn’t paint, that things changed. After a few days of painting in pain he finally let himself rest. While lying in bed with his hurt hand bandaged and feeling very sorry for himself, he heard a small bird singing. It was beautiful. It broke through his deep despair. He felt warmth in his heart. And, for the very first time, he felt beauty.
So moved was he that when his hand was better, he dedicated himself to creating artwork inspired by nature. He spent many hours in the forests of the kingdom listening to birdsong and feeling the breeze in his hair and letting the world around him inspire his paintings. One day he met a simple farmer’s daughter gathering firewood, and they fell in love and got married and had two wonderful children who ran and laughed and played in the woods ’til the church bells rang.
They could see Beauty too.