Charles I: King & Collector at the RA & Charles II: Art & Power at The Queen’s Gallery

Miriam Al Jamil guides us through the grand collections of two Stuart monarchs in her feature on Charles I: King & Collector at the Royal Academy and Charles II: Art & Power at The Queen’s Gallery.

Two members of the Stuart dynasty are making an extraordinary bid for our attention this year, with father and son competing for a share of the superlatives that are unavoidable following a visit to their respective exhibitions. Taken together, the subtitles encapsulate how art played its part in both the destruction and restoration of the dynasty.

The breath-taking tour through Charles I’s collection at the Royal Academy is punctuated by wall labels which imbricate the original work with its purchase by the king and his agents, and the subsequent price, date and purchaser at the Commonwealth sales after his execution. This inevitably brings the debate about art, its value and political expediency into the spotlight. This is a debate that remains unresolved even in our times. We cannot avoid sharing the experience of potential buyers as they viewed the king’s paintings with either a sentimental or shrewd commercial eye in the early 1650’s. What determined their judgement of a good investment and which artists achieved the highest prices? We are playing the game of ‘which painting in the room would you want to take home?’ in their company, and it is not always comfortable or predictable. I have only seen comparable highly monetarised labelling in exhibitions of old masters at small commercial galleries or news reports about obscenely high prices at auctions. The rarefied exclusivity of the seventeenth-century royal collection is exposed for its fragile dependence on Fortuna; the levelling spin of her wheel is as much a part of Charles I’s inexorable downfall as his political ineptitude and improvident judgement.

We cannot avoid sharing the experience of potential buyers as they viewed the king’s paintings with either a sentimental or shrewd commercial eye in the early 1650’s.

The first gallery reminds us of Fortuna’s cruel work at the most important site of royal power, which once dominated the landscape of London. Whitehall Palace burnt down in 1698, taking with it the accretions of monarchical administrative infrastructure along with Holbein’s imposing 1537 dynastic mural of Henry VIII. The fire left blackened scorch marks on the wall of the surviving Banqueting House where Charles I breathed his last in 1649. Only a replica of his bust by Gianlorenzo Bernini, which was made in Rome from the iconic study of Charles I in three positions (1635-36) by Anthony Van Dyck, serves as a focal point for the room. The ghosts of royal patronage surround the bust; Inigo Jones, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Daniel Mytens, along with documents recording the collection, Abraham van der Doort’s poignant 1639 inventory and that of the sale only ten years later. From the beginning the exhibition charts loss as much as survival. Included in the sale details of many items from the collection, we are given a voyeuristic tour of the lost palace, the rooms where we might have encountered each work as privileged visitors or where only the royal family enjoyed their beauty. The Queen, Henrietta Maria, is known to have desperately sold off much of the portable royal treasure to aid her husband but her part during the years of the Civil War tends to be more of a footnote. She died in 1669 at Colombes in France, having seen her son restored to the throne, which must have given some satisfaction.

The exhibition stages some fascinating juxtapositions. As the visitor enters the second gallery, the eye is drawn immediately to The Crouching Venus (cat.24) which normally resides in The British Museum Roman Galleries. Charles I acquired this 2nd century Roman marble from the Gonzaga sale in Mantua, the source of many of his art works. It was later bought by Sir Peter Lely at the 1651 sale for the high sum of £600, before returning to the royal collection. Usually displayed in a sculptural context – for example in the British Museum exhibition in 2015, Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art – this figure exemplifies the value of finding new ‘conversations’ between works of art in different media. Venus or ‘Helen of Troy’ as she was described by Charles’ agent in Mantua, Daniel Nijs, is displayed directly in front of the Peter Paul Rubens painting Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace and War), 1629-30 (cat.14). This will be familiar to National Gallery visitors, as it was the diplomatic gift presented to Charles I to celebrate successful peace negotiations with Spain. The ‘venus pudica’ pose of the crouching statue mirrors the Minerva pose in the painting, but the statue attempts to protect her inviolable virtue with her right arm across her breast; while Minerva celebrates the fecundity of a nation’s Peace by cradling a breast spouting her nurturing milk.

The classical foundations of European art are exemplified throughout the exhibition. Perhaps the most spectacular of these are shown in Gallery III. The nine Triumph of Caesar paintings by Andrea Mantegna, c.1595-1506 have travelled from their home at Hampton Court. Their rarity and quality saved them from Cromwell’s sale. An accompanying wall label states somewhat sardonically ‘As a celebration of ruling authority, the series remained politically significant for the Gonzaga, and as such was presumably appreciated by Charles I as well’. Charles’ inglorious fate has a spectral presence over every exhibit and we find ourselves inevitably seeking premonitions which he had not seen. Julius Caesar in his Chariot (cat.33) does not seem as triumphant as he should, but sits rigid and reflective, surrounded by signs of military power with the laurel crown over his head. The Captives (cat.31) includes shadowy figures behind window grills, and the golden busts signifying defeated enemies held aloft on poles in The Musicians (cat.32) have a sinister foreboding. Surveying the gallery are the busts of Marcus Aurelius (cat.19), his wife Faustina the Younger dated AD 161 (cat.20), described on a panel as ‘the year [she] gave birth to twin boys and her husband became Roman Emperor’, along with three more busts which presumably together signify Charles I and his family. The plunder seized on Caesar’s campaigns like the artistic plunder amassed during Charles’ autocratic rule did not save them. Caesar, like Charles, was ultimately dispatched by his peers.

One of the highlights of this rich and sumptuous exhibition is Gallery VIII, which features a selection of large Orazio Gentileschi paintings, Lot and His Daughters, 1628 (cat.84), Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, 1630-32 (cat.85), The Finding of Moses, 1630-33 (cat.86) and his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi’s Allegory of Painting, 1638-39 (cat.88). These stunning paintings, associated with commissions for The Queen’s House at Greenwich are rarely seen together. The characteristic soft, expressive female Gentileschi faces can now be compared.

Other galleries display paintings of the Northern and Italian Renaissance, intimate cabinet miniatures and bronzes and large Mortlake tapestries, and a comprehensive portrait collection of the King and his family. It is unlikely that such riches will be seen together again on such a scale. The sale of Charles I’s art dispersed his treasures across the country and into European collections. The fact that so many now bear royal provenance again was due to the efforts of the restored King Charles II, who was aware of the value of magnificence and had no intention of relinquishing his hard-won power.

Charles’ inglorious fate has a spectral presence over every exhibit and we find ourselves inevitably seeking premonitions which he had not seen

The exhibition Charles II: Art & Power at The Queen’s Gallery complements the Royal Academy, but emphasises how exile fashioned an altered viewpoint for the restored dynasty. As curator Rufus Bird states in the catalogue, ‘It was from the Continent that Charles drew inspiration for a carefully crafted model of kingship’ (p.12). The first room briefly sets the scene with a haunting portrait of Charles I and references to his trial (Edward Bower, Charles I at his Trial,1648, cat.1) before we arrive at ‘The Revival of Ceremony’ gallery and the essential paraphernalia of monarchy. The ceremonial objects made for Charles II’s coronation occupy a large case. Their scale and contemporary date remind us of the spectacle of the occasion and their role in countering the austerity of the Commonwealth (Mace, 166-61, cat.24; Altar dishes, 1660-61 cat.25-26; Chalice and paten, c.1661, cat.27). Monarchy and its connections to the past had to be created anew and bridge the chasm to ground the new king in an unassailable legitimacy. The Order of the Garter which were included in Charles I’s portraits and bust on show at the Academy has a stronger presence here and glitters in a case, but in fact it is also new (cat.36). It materialises the fate of the Stuarts which hangs over the exhibition, as the executioner’s sword accompanied the king at the Academy. The badge was made for Charles II, the collar for James II, and both accompanied James into his second exile in 1688 and remained on the Continent until 1825. James is overshadowed by his brother in the exhibition but his belief in the signifiers of kingship, exemplified by his reputed casting of the Great Seal into the Thames to halt the functioning of government on his way out of the country, indicates the essential materiality of power on display here.

Charles was particularly keen to recover some paintings from his father’s collection, ones he remembered from his youth. He was in part restoring memories, a lost childhood and a world that once seemed secure

One of the great strengths of exhibitions at the Queen’s Gallery is the accent on books, prints and drawings which contribute nuanced commentary to the main theme. This is particularly apposite for the revival of royal propaganda, which was crucial in 1660 but here broadens into illustrations of the cultural life which developed during Charles II’s reign. The most popular and celebrated feature of his reign in exhibitions tends to be the glamour of his mistresses (for example Painted Ladies: Women at the court of Charles II, 2001-2 and The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, 2011-12, London: National Portrait Gallery). The print of Nell Gwyn as Venus, 1678-9 (cat.168) reminds us of the Correggio copy at the Royal Academy on which it is based, (Peter Oliver, after Correggio, Venus with Mercury and Cupid, ‘School of love’, 1634, RA cat.114). However, here the mistresses take back seats. Significant space is dedicated to the scientific revolution fostered by The Royal Society during Charles II’s reign and is represented by Hooke’s Micrographia: or, some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses,1665 (cat.193) and Flamsteed’s Historiae Coelestis of 1712 (cat.199) and others in a central case.

The exhibition offers a rich display of paintings. The huge portrait of Charles II in court regalia by John Michael Wright, c.1671-6 (cat.49) presides over his collection, but is not what it seems to be. It is not a coronation portrait, but is thought to have been commissioned by Robert Vyner, the banker and goldsmith who supplied the coronation ware mentioned earlier. Charles was notoriously remiss at paying for services rendered, so it is fortunate for Wright that this was not painted for him. Many of the paintings in the two main galleries frequently appear in other genre-based exhibitions but new contexts reward us with new observations. Here, they represent art which was recovered for the crown after the Restoration either by invitation or coercion, as the menacing Proclamation for restoring and discovering his Majesties goods of 1660 (cat.124) makes clear. The term ‘restoration’ is thus given additional resonance. The catalogue states that Charles was particularly keen to recover some paintings from his father’s collection which he remembered from his youth. He was in part restoring memories, a lost childhood and a world that once seemed secure. Some works had ‘escaped’ the Commonwealth sales, for example those which travelled with Henrietta Maria and returned only on her death.

The work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Massacre of the Innocents, c.1565-7 (cat.129) was bought back by Charles from a Breda art dealer. It is a chilling and poignant image which has featured in curators’ talks in the past. The passage of time has thinned overpainting to uncover details beneath a general representation of soldiers plundering a village. Small children and domestic animals are seen under the bundles, the sixteenth-century incarnations of the biblical story at some time deemed unacceptable.

An unintended sting is provided by Carlo Dolci’s Salome with the head of John the Baptist, c.1682 (cat.70) in the final room. She is dressed in courtly blue silk damask and jewels, and delicately carries not a tray of fruit and flowers but the livid head of the saint. It is yet another strange reminder of the Stuart tragedy. Royalists spent years fashioning a myth of sainthood for Charles I. In the end, the direct line of ruling Stuart kings in England concluded with the Glorious Revolution, but the efforts of two of them to express their right and power through the art collections shown in these exhibitions deserve celebration.

Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy until 15 April, 2018; Charles II: Art and Power is shown at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 13 May, 2018.

Miriam Al Jamil is researching towards a PhD in art history at Birkbeck. She is the Fine Arts editor for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies online review page, ‘Criticks’ and is active in The Women’s Studies Group, 1558-1837. Miriam is also a key member of the Johnson Society of London and the Burney Society UK. She prefers fruitful inter-disciplinary conversations between literature, art and history, and classical sculpture is her inspiration.

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