At the very close of this exhibition is a wonderful Dutch Vanitas picture by Pieter Gerritz Van Roestraten. It is an appropriate way to end because this exhibition is all about vanity and the use of art to construct and communicate an image of Royal authority and Royal taste following the restoration of Charles II after the failure of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The exhibition charts the use of imagery by Charles from the execution of his father in 1649 to his restoration as King Charles II in 1660 until his death in 1685. It draws entirely on work in the Royal Collection.
The centrepiece of the exhibition are two enormous canvases, one a portrait of Charles II by John Michael Wright, the other an allegorical painting, The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio. These two large paintings, both well over 2m square, are the epitome of Royal image making as Charles sought both to reinforce his authority and present an image of monarchical splendour that was in stark contrast to to the puritan ethos of the Commonwealth. These pictures not only say “I am King” but also “The Good Times are Back”.
Surrounding these two portraits are a number of other substantial portraits of the Royal Household, including his wife and brother, and several women at Court including his mistresses. These include pictures of Barbara Villiers, the King’s mistress for several years, Elizabeth Hamilton and Mary Bagot, part of a series of ‘Windsor beauties’ by Sir Peter Lely who was born in Germany to Dutch parents, moved to England and became a highly-favoured painter of the Royal Household. But Lely was not the only Royal painter. One of the most attractive pictures is of Louise de Keroualle, another mistress of the King, by Philippe Vignon.
Charles II’s efforts to use art to project power was not just about creating images of him and his Court. It was also about establishing an art collection that would stand comparison with the finest in Europe. This was a project to which his father had been deeply committed and which is the subject of a major exhibition at the Royal Academy (Charles I: King and Collector) opening shortly. After his execution that collection was broken up and sold. Some went abroad and could never be re-acquired, but much that was sold in England was returned to the King after the restoration. In addition he was the benefit of periodic gifts, including a major gift of paintings from the Dutch that included a Titian that was thought to be one of his favourite paintings, and a collector in his own right.
I have focused here primarily on the paintings in the exhibition, but there is much more including coronation regalia and plate, prints, and old master drawings. All in all it tells the story of Art and Power very well and is well worth a visit. When Charles I: King and Collector opens next week, we shall have two exhibitions open together which will give a fascinating insight into Stuart collecting and taste-making. Well worth a trip.