For the first time since the 17th century, a fraction of Charles I’s (1600-49) impressive collection of treasures is reunited in a phenomenal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is thought that the Stuart king once amassed over 1500 paintings, which after his execution in 1649, were sold off and scattered across Europe. Thanks to his son and heir, Charles II, who incidentally has an exhibition of his own at the Queen’s Gallery, many of these were retrieved and reclaimed by the royal family. Charles I: King and Collector contain over 100 works including classical sculpture, Baroque paintings, miniatures and tapestries.
The fate of Charles I is largely known, however, his personal life and character often get overlooked. Charles was the second son and youngest surviving child of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and was not destined to become king. Unfortunately, his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales died in 1612, making Charles heir apparent. Thirteen years later, Charles succeeded his father as king and his volatile reign began. As the king of Great Britain, Charles I angered many people by dissolving Parliament and taking complete control of the country. By 1642, the first of two civil wars had broken out between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the Royalists. Seven years later, Charles was dead, having been beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.
The Royal Academy puts Charles I’s execution to one side and concentrates on the man himself and his huge collection of artworks. At the time, Charles owned the best art collection in Europe and the pieces that remain in the Royal Collection are his greatest legacy. The exhibition begins by introducing a few of the painters that were working at the time of Charles’ reign. These include Anthony van Dyck ,(1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1571-1640), and Daniel Mytens (1590 – 1647), whose self-portraits can be seen in the first gallery.
Two portraits by Van Dyck introduce visitors to the king and his queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), the daughter of Henri IV of France. The painting of King Charles is unusual in that it contains three portraits of the king, each facing a different direction: profile, face on, and half-profile. This painting was not made for display but rather to aid the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to produce a bust of the British king. Unfortunately, this sculpture was later lost in a fire. This painting, however, reveals a lot about the way Charles wished to be seen. It is clear from his clothing that he is a man of taste, yet his dreamy expression suggests an air of sensitivity.
Charles’ passion for art began before he became king and was greatly impacted by his travels to Madrid in 1623. The initial purpose of visiting Spain was to explore the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria Anna, however, it quickly became apparent that this was never going to happen. Instead, Charles returned to England with a number of paintings and artworks. Many of these appear in this exhibition, including several he acquired from the continent later in life, in particular, the second century AD statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.
Aphrodite or The Crouching Venus is one of several Roman marble copies of the lost Hellenistic sculpture. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is depicted as a nude in a crouching pose with her hair over her left shoulder.
This was one of the most beautiful antiquities sourced in Mantua for the king. After Charles’ execution, the painter Peter Lely (1618-80) acquired the statue, however, returned it after the restoration of the monarchy. The Crouching Venus can usually be found at the British Museum where it has been on loan since 1963.
Another important artwork with Spanish connections is a large-scale oil painting by Rubens that was gifted to the king by the artist. Peace and War (c1630) was Ruben’s subliminal method of illustrating his hopes for peace between England and Spain. In the background, the Roman goddess Minerva can be seen pushing Mars, the god of war, whilst in the foreground, Pax, the goddess of Peace sits amidst a horn of plenty.
“The King prefers old paintings.” Letter from England to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 11th July 1635
Many paintings in Charles’ collection were painted long before he was born. A considerable amount of artwork on display comes from the Renaissance era, both Northern and Italian. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who had been in service to Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a particular favourite. It is recorded that Charles I owned 44 works by Holbein, who predominantly painted portraits. The example in this exhibition, however, is a biblical scene taken from John 20:17. Noli me tangere (c1528) shows the risen Christ outside his tomb forbidding Mary Magdalene to touch him.
Nearby, another Biblical painting from the same era depicts Adam and Eve standing naked in the Garden of Eden after taking their forbidden bites from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was sent by the Dutch states in an attempt to curry favour with the king. A number of paintings from Northern Europe were given to Charles as gifts, therefore, it cannot be certain whether he enjoyed these types of works. On the other hand, the sheer number of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, which fills two galleries of the exhibition, imply that the king had a passion for older works.
Biblical scenes were popular amongst Renaissance painters, therefore, it is unsurprising to find several more religious artworks in Charles’ collection. One of particular note is The Supper at Emmaus (c1534) by the Italian painter Titian (1488-1576). Charles acquired this painting in the 1620s shortly before becoming king. It illustrates part of the New Testament recorded in Luke 24:30-31 where Jesus is breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection. This, however, is not the reason for its significance, it is the techniques of the artist rather than the subject that matters most in this exhibition.
As those who choose to pay for an audio guide will discover, works by Titian influenced many later artists, including Van Dyck who became the Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties in 1632. In the background of Titian’s painting is a large column, which can be seen over Jesus’ shoulder. The positioning of this column is deliberate because it draws the eye to the principal character in the painting, thus denoting his importance. Van Dyck uses this artistic trick in a few of his portraits of Charles I and the royal family. Similarly, William Dobson (1611-46) does the same in a portrait of Charles II, indicating his importance, even at the young age of twelve.
As the king’s painter, Van Dyck was responsible for many of the portraits of members of the royal family. Born in the Flemish city Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was a teen prodigy who found his feet as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens. It was during a stay in Italy where Van Dyck encountered paintings by Titian and filled many sketchbooks with drawings based on these. One of these books is displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition.
Van Dyck quickly built up a reputation as a portraitist and was sought out by many aristocrats throughout Europe. King Charles I was one of his many admirers and enticed Van Dyck to come to England with promises of a knighthood, a bountiful salary and a studio in Blackfriars, London. Although he preferred to be in mainland Europe, Van Dyck impressed the British nobility with his impressive paintings.
For the first and possibly only time, the four largest and most important paintings Van Dyck produced of Charles I are on display at the centre of the exhibition. The curators at the Royal Academy have done an excellent job at positioning these tall canvases so that if visitors stand in the centre of the Central Hall, they can turn 360 degrees and take in all four paintings. Three of these focus on the king and his passion for the hunting field, however, the other is a family portrait, featuring his wife and two eldest children.
The first piece Van Dyck was commissioned to produce for the king was the family portrait, which became known as The Great Peece (1632). Charles and Henrietta Maria are both seated on throne-like chairs whilst their pet dogs play on the floor at their feet. The queen holds the baby Mary and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, clings to his father’s leg. This may appear a casual, informal portrait depicting the foursome as a family rather than rulers of the country, however, there are many subliminal signs that suggest the opposite.
To the king’s right-hand side sits the royal crown atop a red velvet cloth, which indicates Charles’ status. Behind him, in the distance, are the buildings of Westminster, communicating the king’s role in politics. Both of these elements point to Charles’ importance, however, Van Dyck’s use of a column inspired by Titian, is almost an arrow pointing to the most significant person in the painting.
The remaining three paintings show Charles I outside of his family circle. In two of these, Charles is mounted on a horse: Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633) and Charles I on Horseback (1637-8). Equestrian paintings were an emblem of power and Charles wished to appear to the public as a strong ruler. The horses are large and muscular with manes that are not dissimilar to their rider’s hair. Van Dyck uses the strength of these animals to stress the powerful position of the king.
The final large painting, Le Roi à la Chasse or Charles I in the Hunting Field (1636) reflects more of the king’s personality than his position of power. Rather than sitting aside his horse, Charles stands at its head striking a nonchalant pose with a traditional English landscape behind him. Although Charles may not be wearing the royal armour as in the previous two paintings, he is still dressed as befits his status, complete with broad-brimmed hat, an appearance that would become a memorable look for the king.
It is clear from this exhibition that Charles I had an eye for artwork, however, he was not the only one. Henrietta Maria sought out and commissioned a fair share of the collection, particularly the Italian Baroque paintings, which her husband appeared not to be as fascinated with. Like her husband, Henrietta Maria was drawn to religious scenes as well as the occasional Greek or Roman myth. Many of the paintings owned by the queen were commissioned for particular rooms in her apartments, including the Queen’s House in Greenwich.
The Queen’s House was originally going to be a gift for James I’s wife, however, she died before its completion. Henrietta Maria, who received the house as a present from Charles I, made the building’s decoration her personal project. One painter she particularly admired was Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) who had once worked for her mother in Paris. Henrietta Maria persuaded the Italian painter to come to England where he decorated one of the ceilings at the house in Greenwich. He also completed canvases for the queen, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-2), which only returned to the Queen’s House last year.
Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is based on a scene from the Book of Genesis (39:7-12) when the Pharaoh’s wife attempts to entice Joseph into bed, who at this time is the captain of Potiphar’s guard. Although Joseph refuses the woman, she uses his cloak, which in the painting she is holding on to whilst Joseph makes his escape, to claim that he had seduced her. The rich colours, smooth skin tone, an abundance of fabric, and the use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting, see Caravaggio) that Gentileschi includes in the painting are an indication of Henrietta Maria’s tastes.
Visitors who have also been to the Queen’s House may also recognise the final painting in the exhibition: Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-5) by Peter Paul Rubens. This was not one of Henrietta Maria’s acquisitions but a gift to the king from the artist. It is believed that Rubens produced this landscape in honour of England after his year as an English diplomat. It is a depiction of the famous English folktale where Saint George defeats the bloodthirsty dragon, however, in the background can be seen buildings alongside the River Thames. It is also suggested that Saint George has been deliberately painted to resemble King Charles I.
The paintings mentioned above are only a handful of the marvellous artworks that Charles I had in his reputable collection. Within this exhibition are the nine paintings that make up The Triumph of Caesar (1484-92) by the 15th-century artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and four tapestries showing the Acts of the Apostles. There is also a room devoted to miniatures and small items that were part of the Whitehall Cabinet. These would not have been on public view, therefore, give an insight into Charles’ life behind doors. One item worth noting is the tiny bronze statue of Charles I on horseback by Hubert Le Sueur (1580 – 1658); this is a model of the version erected in Trafalgar Square.
As reported in The Times, the RA exhibition Charles I: King and Collector is “a landmark exhibition. You will not see its likes again. Don’t miss your chance.” This is a very accurate opinion, it is indeed a landmark exhibition and these paintings will never be all in the same place again. Most importantly, the paintings on show are some of the best to have been produced prior to and during the early 1600s. It may be expensive to enter, but after two hours of walking through the galleries, you will agree that it is worth the price.
Charles I: King and Collector is organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and remains on show until 15th April 2018. Prices are £18 although concessions are available.