The Royal Academy have launched into their 250th anniversary year with the large and spectacular exhibition of art collected by Charles I in the years up to his execution in 1649. It is a sumptuous display of paintings and other artwork drawing extensively on the Royal Collection, the Louvre and the Prado. It must be doubtful whether these paintings will ever be brought back together again; certainly not in my lifetime.
Indeed, so rich and enjoyable is the assemblage of paintings that there is a danger that we miss the context surrounding the original construction of this collection. Charles I was a divisive king at a time when his three Kingdoms, England, Scotland and Ireland, were already deeply divided both between Protestantism and Catholicism and the respective powers of King and Parliament. Charles was the last British monarch to believe that the divine right of kings gave him the authority to govern as he so wished and, whilst nominally a Protestant, he married a Catholic and consistently supported high church Anglicans. It was a time when the kingdoms of Britain were deeply divided internally; divisions which led to the English Civil War and ultimately the capture, trial and execution of the King.
So, building a grand collection was not for Charles I simply a question of indulging his personal tastes. It was for him a critical part of creating a monarchical court which would stand comparison with the great Catholic and absolutist fourth of Europe, France and Spain. Before he became King, Charles had already spent time in Madrid in a fruitless exercise to negotiate his marriage to a Spanish princess. There he was exposed to one of the great art collections of Europe, particularly strong in works from the Italian Renaissance by Titian and others. When he did subsequently marry his wife was Henrietta Maria, daughter of the King of France. A King who wish to proclaim his divine rights had certain appearances to keep up.
So when Charles became King he embarked on a large and expensive programme of buying art and especially art from the Italian and North European Renaissances. That art forms a key part of this exhibition and served both to establish a collection and of course to establish history. This was art from centuries before he was king and its ownership not only established him as a monarch with supreme taste, it also brought him by implication pedigree and antecedents. And what a collection he developed, and is on show at this exhibition. It includes magnificent paintings by Titian, perhaps his favourite artist, Corregio, Veronese and Mantegna. Examples from all of them are included in the exhibition, including Mantegna’s cycle of nine large canvases celebrating the victories of Julius Caesar. These were the cornerstone of a huge purchase from Italy which arrived in England in 1630.
But it was not enough to collect history. A king who aspired to demonstrate that his court was one of the key centres of artistic patronage in Europe also needed to commission his own work. Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was a Flemish painter originally brought to England by the Marquess of Buckingham who introduced him first to Jame VI and I and then to his sone Charles I. The result was one of the very most successful collaborations between monarch and artist in European history. Charles I kept Van Dyck at court for the rest of his life and commissioned throughout a steady stream of portraits and representations of the king.
Van Dyck in return proved himself at be a wondrous image maker who took this short, nervous looking and weasel faced king and turned him into the very model of contemporary heroic kingship, without ever steering so far away from the reality of the king’s character as to threaten the credibility of either the artist or the king. The result was as a series of magnificent large-scale portraits of the king and his family which are the equal of any royal portraits produced in Britain. The central room of the exhibition is filled with three large portraits draw from the National Gallery and the Royal Collection which are remarkable pieces of artistic showmanship.
All in all, this is one of the great exhibitions of Old Master paintings and there is much to savour. But there is much to reflect on as well. The collection is a demonstration of considerable taste and discernment. But it also reflects and extravagant focus on building the substance and appearance of an autocratic, monarchical court at a time when the public mood was moving in a very different direction. As is often the case the consequence of a ruler failing to understand and respond to the sentiments of his people were tragic for both the ruler and the ruled.