The first half of the 1600s were a turbulent time for the English with civil war, the beheading of a king, over a decade of Cromwellian rule, and, finally, the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy. The Royal Collection Trust has foraged through their huge hoard of paintings to put together an exhibition to illustrate the restoration of the monarchy and the rule of Charles II (1630-85). Charles II: Art & Power, held at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, celebrates the resurgence of the arts in England, reinforced by Charles II’s position as king. The colourful court life was a stark comparison to the dreariness of the Republic with a rise in paintings and rich materials, and the reproduction of regalia.
The exhibition starts off with a look at the final moments of Charles I’s life (1600-49) before he was committed for treason and beheaded in January 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitechapel. The Commonwealth which followed lasted a little more than a decade with the puritan Parliamentarian general, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in charge. The remaining Stuarts were forced into exile, resulting in the story of the oak tree, which was where part of Charles II’s mythology, arose from. After the royalists lost the battle, the son of Charles I spent a day hiding in a great oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire. Commemorative wares, such as the dish on display, were sold in honour of his bravery after the restoration of the monarchy.
Charles II’s coronation took place on 23rd April 1661 and was the most extravagant since Elizabeth I’s the century before. During the Commonwealth, most of the ceremonial items needed for the inauguration had been sold or destroyed, therefore the Jewel House needed to be replenished and royal regalia remade. A number of these items are on display in the gallery and a few are still used today in royal ceremonies. A particularly noteworthy piece of regalia is the Collar and Badge of the Order of the Garter designed by Sir Robert Vyner (1631-88) specifically for Charles II’s coronation. It is made from gold and set with 20 large and 100 small diamonds.
Charles II’s reign was not the only change affecting England in the mid-1600s, the restoration of the monarchy occurred simultaneously with the development of print production. As a result, Charles II was the first king to include prints in his growing art collection. Artists also converted portraits of the monarch into printed versions, which, although he never owned himself, are featured in the gallery.
Two prints of portraits by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) show the difference between two printmaking techniques. The first is an etching produced by Peter Vandrebanc (1649-97). The majority of early prints used this method in which a painting was carefully copied and etched onto a metal plate and covered with ink in order to transfer the drawing onto paper. The second, similar portrait was produced by Abraham Blooteling (1640-90) by a process called mezzotint (“half-tone”). Unlike its forerunning techniques, mezzotint avoided the line marks that cross-hatching caused and produced high-quality, tonal images instead.
As well as portraits of the king, his wife and mistresses, of whom he had many, were also the subjects of detailed prints. These were adapted from paintings by various artists, however, Charles II never owned them himself. The benefit of printmaking was that several copies of the same image could be made at once, thus lowering the cost, making them affordable to members of the public. Many prints found themselves pinned on the walls of taverns and coffee shops where they could be appreciated by the masses and demonstrated the shop owners’ loyalty to the royal family.
The prints that Charles II did collect had a more functional nature. A particular print worthy of note was a map of London that revealed the damages caused by the Great Fire of London. The fire broke out on Sunday 2nd September 1666, only a few years into the king’s reign. Instead of fleeing for safety, Charles found himself standing before the heat of the flames, helping and overseeing the extinguishing of the destructive inferno. Shortly after the three-day long blaze, Charles commissioned his scenographer Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) to produce a detailed map revealing the buildings that had succumbed to the devastation. With the aid of the map, plans to rebuild a better, safer London was initiated and conducted quickly and efficiently.
Due to printmakers’ abilities to produce numerous copies of one item, illustrators and writers took full advantage in order to send their work out to a much wider audience. As a result, many satirical pieces began to arise, including the farcical The Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot (1682). With illustrations by an anonymous artist, the broadsheet attempted to mock the printed account A True Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party (Oates, 1679). The Popish Plot was indeed a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates (1649-1705) in an attempt to accuse Catholics of conspiring to assassinate Charles II. The broadsheet owned by the Royal Collection Trust likens Oates’ testimony to the false witnesses who testified against Jesus Christ and included illustrations that resemble Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.
It is not until midway through the exhibition that the artworks begin to describe and reveal the actual life and reign of Charles II. The restoration of the monarchy not only reverted England to its Kingdom status, it essentially rebooted the lives of the royals. Just as the royal regalia previously mentioned had been destroyed, so too had the former residences, palaces and castles belonging to the first Stuart king. As a result, only Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court, which Cromwell had commandeered for his personal use, remained in functioning order.
Unfortunately, funds were low, and with many things in need of replacing, only Windsor Castle was rebuilt during Charles II’s lifetime. Of course, Windsor Castle has been revamped since the Stuarts were on the throne, however, watercolour illustrations by Charles Wild (1781-1835) reveal what the interior of the castle looked like after Charles’ renovations. On the ceiling of the St George’s Hall was a fresco painting featuring Charles II at its centre. All that remains of this fresco is the head and shoulders of the king which somebody had the foresight to rescue and preserve.
Charles II was a significant figure in the resurgence of arts and could often be found surrounded by beautiful women, actors, scientists and poets. His passion for the theatre re-established the playhouses which he and his court would regularly attend. This also marked a significant turning point in stage production; for the first time in history, women were allowed to act on stage. Previously, female parts had been performed by young male actors, but now women could take those positions themselves, including one of Charles’ long-time mistresses, Nell Gwyn (1650-87).
Being a great encourager of the arts, paintings became an expression of power for the monarch and his family. Not only did he own paintings of himself and his wife, he had all his mistresses painted as well. Amongst portraits of these ladies, including Nell Gwyn, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1641-1709) and Mary Bagot, Duchess of Falmouth and Dorset (1645-79) sits the painting of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) who Charles married in 1662. Less alluring than her husband’s lovers, Catherine is depicted as a shepherdess, complete with a little lamb which may have been a reference to the children court and society hoped for her to have. Unfortunately, despite three miscarriages, Catherine produced no royal heirs.
The most significant portrait in the collection is without a doubt the king himself, painted by John Michael Wright (1617-94). Featuring heavily on advertisements for the exhibition, this recognisable portrait is of a formidable size and is an outstanding piece of artwork. Charles II sits on a throne wearing the royal crown and is dressed in parliamentary robes over his Order of the Garter costume. In one hand he carried the Orb and the other the sceptre, both of which were made by Sir Robert Vyner for the king’s coronation. The colours and pose of the sitter are similar to portraits of past monarchs, thus conveying the continuation of the royal line.
Walking around the gallery, looking at the members of the royal court, it is easy to think of these historical figures as a form of still life, to be studied at a distance like precious objects in a museum. However, these were real people living real lives, but what is even more important is that these paintings do not represent the majority of the English population. At midday and midafternoon, talks are held at the gallery in front of Charles II’s prestigious portrait. Although each discourse will differ depending on the speaker, it is likely that the gallery worker will enlighten visitors about the true living situations of the people of London.
Before the Fire of London, houses were a mess of materials held together more by luck than architectural skill. One could be as bold as to say the fire did the people a favour by destroying their inadequate abodes in order to rebuild nicer looking, safer structures. The streets, however, would have been full of disease-ridden waste, including human excrement, which would be thrown from the windows of houses due to the lack of a sewage system. The streets of London stank and the Thames was full of the debris and detritus that flowed into it. The capital was not a pleasant place to live and the Royals were the only people who could reside there in comfort.
Whilst Charles’ collection of paintings may have hidden the true situation in London, they did introduce people of lower status. Although painted a year after the king’s death, an example of this features a full-length portrait of a domestic servant. Before the seventeenth century, it was extremely rare for a servant to feature in a painting let alone be the main subject. Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) was painted by the artist John Riley (1646-91) when she was at the ripe old age of 96. She had already served both Charles I and II and was now the “Necessary Woman” of James II. She would later serve under William III until her death at the age of 100. It is likely that this painting was produced in honour of her dedication to the royal family.
Charles’ love of the theatre resulted in actors (and actresses) receiving more respect than they had done in the past. John Lacy (c1615-81) was a comic actor who was a particular favourite of the king. Lacy was honoured with a three-in-one portrait which depicted himself in three different theatrical roles: the lead from The Taming of the Shrew, Monsieur Device from the Duke of Newcastle’s The Country Chaplain, and Parson Scruple in John Wilson’s The Cheats.
Although these portraits were one way of rebuilding the royal art collection, Charles II was determined to recover the original artworks belonging to his father. The Parliamentarians had sold off nearly all paintings belonging to Charles I, and the new king was doubtful that he would retrieve many of them. However, after instructing his subjects to return them immediately (later making this law), a significant amount was returned. Charles II was also gifted paintings from many dignitaries across Europe, including 28 from the States of Holland and West Friesland. In all, Charles II owned over 1000 paintings, a handful of which are exhibited in the final room at the gallery.
Charles preferred the Old Masters but also collected contemporary classical-style paintings. Those that were not returned or gifted to the king were likely ones he had purchased himself. Not believing he would ever see his father’s collection again, Charles sought out an art dealer in Breda, the Netherlands and purchased 72 paintings. One of these is the famous Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69). This popular image illustrates the slaughtering of babies under the orders of King Herod as written in Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament after he learnt about the birth of Jesus from the wise men.
The royal collection accumulated other religious scenes from the art dealer and artists themselves who chose to honour the king with gifts of their paintings. One painter, Carlo Dolci (1616-86), sent Charles two paintings of biblical women: The Penitent Magdalene and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. The latter refers to the imprisonment of John (Matthew 14: 3-12 and Mark 6: 17-29) and his subsequent beheading at the request of Herodias’ daughter.
Charles II also commissioned artists to produce paintings for rooms at Windsor Castle. Two examples are the mythological scenes painted by Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715) which hung in the king’s dining room. Titled Venus and the Sleeping Adonis and The Triumph of Galatea, these oil paintings represent love stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
It is interesting to take note of the varying style of paintings collected by the third Stuart king. He owned a mix of religious and mythological narrative artworks, tapestries, portraits and so forth from a wide range of painters. This could potentially be a result of Charles’ desperation to rebuild his father’s grand collection, however, it is just as likely that he was an art aficionado and enjoyed an assortment of approaches and topics.
Admittedly, there are not many paintings at the Charles II exhibition that have the “wow factor”, nor do they linger in the mind after leaving the gallery. Although this is first and foremost an art exhibit, what the Queen’s Gallery has effectively achieved is an articulate history of the restoration of the monarchy. The combination of art and written explanation, as well as an optional audio guide, reveal to visitors far more than they may have learnt at school or discovered in their own time. Those whose interests lie in both British history and 16th- and 17th-century art will greatly enjoy and benefit from this exhibition – that is not to say, of course, that others will not!
Charles II: Art & Power will remain at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th May 2018 leaving plenty of time for those who have not yet had the opportunity to view the exhibition to book their tickets. Entry prices for adults are £11 and this includes the option of a free audio guide which elaborates on certain paintings and objects.