by Roderick Conway Morris

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Charles I, King and Collector

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 9 February 2018
Royal Collection/HM the Queen
Charles I and Henrietta Maria with Prince Charles
and Princess Mary (The Greate Peece)
by Antony van Dyck, 1631-32



If Charles I had applied to matters of state the same savoir-faire and sensitivity that he did to his pursuit of art, he might well have kept both his head and his magnificent collections.

Before Charles came to the throne, Peter Paul Rubens paid him the remarkable compliment of describing him as 'the greatest art lover among all the princes of the world'. After being crowned in 1625, he and his consort Henrietta Maria in less than two decades built up a collection of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other art works to rival any in Europe.

But, following the king's defeat in the Civil War and his execution in 1649, Cromwell auctioned off the collection over several months in the so-called Commonwealth Sale. Some 400 pictures were sold off, many of them snapped up by the courts of France and Spain. Happily, around 200 of these works were later recovered for the Royal Collections.

But the losses - many of which now grace the galleries of the Prado in Madrid and the Louvre in France - were immense, as can be seen by the superb 'Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy', which brings together, through generous loans from a number of institutions, 140 of these pieces. The show is curated by Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor.

The opening gallery introduces us through portraits to the principal protagonists of the story: the artistic stars of Charles's court, Antony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and the architect and designer Inigo Jones. Here, too, are the pioneering connoisseurs, the Earl of Arundel, the Duke of Buckingham and Endymion Porter. Charles himself is represented by Van Dyck's celebrated 'In Three Positions'. This triple portrait was made on the initiative of Henrietta Maria (daughter of the French king Henry IV and Maria de' Medici), whom Charles married in the year of his accession, to send to Rome, to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the greatest sculptor of the age, to make a marble bust of the king.

Henrietta Maria, who not only benefited from her culturally cosmopolitan French and Florentine parentage but was also Pope Urban VIII's goddaughter, emerges in this show as a hitherto unsung heroine of this collecting saga.

The subsequent galleries unfold an astonishing display of canvases by the masters of the Italian and Northern Renaissances, from Correggio, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Jacopo Bassano and Orazio Gentileschi, to Dürer, Holbein the Younger, Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Dyck.

Mantegna's gigantic series of canvases, 'The Triumph of Caesar', a visual celebration of the rediscovery of the glories of the ancient world that fired the Renaissance, fills an entire gallery. This sequence came as part of Charles's purchase of almost the entire collection - one of the finest ever amassed in Europe - of the cash-strapped Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. A unique opportunity, this huge acquisition elevated the English Royal Collections to five-star status almost overnight. Another coup was Charles's earlier purchase of seven cartoons by Raphael, which had served as models for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, and were used to weave even more spectacular versions at Mortlake (four of these are on loan here from France).

Antony Van Dyck was appointed 'principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties' in 1632, and his pictures defined the image of Charles's court and family. They fill the Central Hall and a side gallery, and constitute here a story within the main narrative, in which we see the artist both rising to the challenges of the vast canvases he was commissioned to paint and becoming ever more expressive and subtle in his portraiture. His delightful 'The Five Eldest Children of Charles I' is shot through with affectionate humour and his 'Charles I in the Hunting Field' unsurpassed as a stylish, semi-formal dynastic representation.

The dispersal of Henrietta Maria's decorative schemes from her own two residences, Somerset (then, Denmark) House and the Queen's House in Greenwich, have obscured her role as a contributor to the formation of the Royal Collections. Indeed, she complained that her husband had a habit of appropriating any significant picture sent to her from Rome.

The gallery devoted to 'The Queen's House' tellingly reveals the prominence she gave to contemporary painters. Women protagonists take centre stage here, with a surprising degree of unclothed female flesh and subject matter that is risquÉ - as in Orazio Gentileschi's 'Lot and His Daughters' and 'Joseph and Potiphar's Wife' and Guido Reni and Studio's 'The Toilet of Venus' (cherry-picked from the Gonzaga purchases) - and gruesome, as in Cristofano Allori's 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'. One of these canvases, the allegorical 'Finding of Moses', painted by Gentileschi on the birth of the future Charles II, marked a key event in the subsequent restoration of the English monarchy in 1660.

Charles I: King and Collector; Royal Academy, London; 27 January - 15 April 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024