The R.A.’s new exhibition, devoted to the role of Charles I, the most unfortunate of the Stuart monarchs, as collector of art, is a much more splendid affair than the concurrent show at the Queen’s Gallery, attached to Buckingham Palace, which is devoted to that of his son and eventual successor Charles II, attempting the same role.
One perhaps surprising aspect of the exhibition at the R.A. is how much of it comes from the existing British royal collection
There are various reasons for this. One is, clearly, that the art world of the early part of the 17th century offered much better opportunities for acquisition than that of the art world post-1660 when the Stuart monarchy was restored to power after the catastrophe of the Civil War. Charles, I benefited from the break-up of the princely Gonzaga collection in Italy, which put works by major painters by Renaissance Italian masters within his grasp. As a patron, he was able to commission work from better artists than those available to his son. He got Van Dyck. Charles II got Lely.
One perhaps surprising aspect of the exhibition at the R.A. is how much of it comes from the existing British royal collection. There are indeed important loans from elsewhere, but this show demonstrates, much more convincingly than the parallel exhibition now on at the Queen’s Gallery, how successful Charles II and his agents were at recuperating what had been sold off by the Commonwealth.
The reason we don’t realise this fully is that the British monarchy, from the time of Charles II onwards, has succeeded in retaining its possessions. The collections made by French and Spanish monarchs, which also survive in large part, are now much more completely in the public sphere, on view in great museums such as the Louvre and the Prado.
In his own day, Charles I ranked very much as a ‘nouveau’ collector. He was crashing into a cultural world that had, until then, existed very happily without the British monarchy. The Tudors, the dynasty which preceded that of the Stuarts, did not have much contact with or access to major European artists. The native talents available to them were naïve and unsophisticated, compared to what was happening elsewhere. The one big name of that period, living and working in England at least for a while, was Hans Holbein. As an ambitious young heir apparent, in Spain, courting a Spanish Infanta, the soon-to-be-Charles I realised enviously that he had a lot of catching up to do. He set about doing so with a will.
The painters Charles most responded to were grand Italians – Titian, Veronese, Correggio. Jacopo Bassano and of course earlier works such as Da Vinci, who’s Salvator Mundi was part of this collection, but not part of the exhibition. This painting recently fetched $450m at auction, a record price for a work of art. There are, nevertheless, a number of paintings of very high quality by Northern masters in the show – not just a group of Holbeins, but a work by Durer, and even a postage-stamp sized painting by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. This latter, alas, counts as one of those that got away. It now belongs to the Frick in New York.
The exhibition also offers lots of wonderful paintings by Van Dyck, many of them images of the doomed king himself. These include the portrait of the king seen from three different angles, made in preparation for a bust by Bernini, now lost, destroyed in a fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698. There is also the supremely elegant full length of Charles in hunting costume, now in the Louvre. This was not included in the sale of the royal collection organised by the Commonwealth. The guess is that Henrietta Maria, Charles’ queen, took it with her when she retired to France to get away from the war.
The exhibition is, as its title implies, almost as much a direct commemoration of the doomed king’s own personality as it is of what he accumulated in art. You can see how, in terms of his time, he turned out to be a misfit.
It is beautifully presented. The one failure, a regrettable one, is that the great series by Mantegna – The Triumph of Caesar (yes this belonged to Charles too) – is spaciously hung, but very badly lit.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Top Photo: Sara Faith © Artlyst 2018
CHARLES I – King and Collector Until 15 April 2018 Royal Academy London