Cavaliers and roundheads are the staples of British history. Charles I was fond of the fine things in life, lost touch with the people and so lost his head. Fondness for the fine things went beyond fancy lace collars and floppy-eared spaniels: he was the first British Monarch to amass a truly great art collection. Once Cromwell had chopped off Charles I head, he set about selling his fantastic art collection. Fast forward a decade, Cromwell is dead and Charles II returns to claim his father’s crown. Like father like son, he knew a thing or two about Royal art and power and set about creating his own collection. This Spring it is possible to see the collections for father and son in London. Start with the father at the Royal Academy and then stroll across Green Park to see the Charles II collection on show at the Queen’s Gallery.
CHARLES I KING AND COLLECTOR
Charles I got bitten by the art collecting bug when he made a visit to the Spanish court when he was heir to the throne. Negotiations for his marriage to a Spanish princess were proceeding very slowly so he set off in disguise to pay a visit to the Spanish King. Charles didn’t return with a bride but he did come home with his bags packed with paintings by Titian and Veronese, including this rather fine portrait of Charles V and a Dog by Titian.
Once home Charles set about amassing a collection of his own. He made a good start by buying up the art of the cash strapped Gonzaga family in Mantua. Included in this job lot is what is now known as the Lely Aphrodite. This third century Roman sculpture was bought by the painter Sir Peter Lely in the Commonwealth Sale and then reacquired by the Royal Collection after the painter’s death.
Not content with just buying paintings, he set about commissioning artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck to create works for him. These portraits painted of Charles I and his family occupy the central rooms of the exhibition.
Charles was not the oldest son of his parents. Henry, Prince of Wales died young but before he died he had started an art collection of his own. Charles inherited his brother’s collection and kept it close by him in what was known as the Whitehall Cabinet. One room in Charles I King and Collector aims to recreate the feel of the Cabinet, it is filled with Holbein drawings and Hilliard miniatures and is my favourite room in the show.
Things didn’t end well for Charles I. He was on the losing side of the English Civil War and ended up walking out of the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace to be beheaded. Shortly afterwards Oliver Cromwell had Charles’ magnificent collection sold off in what was known as the Commonwealth Sale. All the labels in the Royal Academy exhibition say whereabouts in which Royal Palace the painting hung, how much it sold for and to whom in the Commonwealth Sale. It is fascinating to see where the paintings went and where they still live.
Charles I’s collection was spread far and wide, both the Spanish and French Royal families snapped up lots of bargains. Those paintings still hang in the Prado and the Louvre today. This is the first time that these paintings have al hung together for over three hundred and fifty years. Once you have seen the father’s collection, take a stroll across the park to Buckingham Palace to see the son’s.
CHARLES II ART AND POWER at the Queen’s Gallery
Just over a decade after the regicide of Charles I, his son was invited back to assume the throne. Charles II came back to find his palaces bare, all the pictures and tapestries sold. He didn’t even have a crown to wear as Cromwell had had the Crown Jewels melted down. Charles set about refurnishing his homes and creating bling that ensured all that saw him could not but doubt that he was an anointed King. First things first, he needed regalia and set dressing for his coronation. This stunning selection of ecclesiastical plate includes silver gilt maces and altar dishes that created a glittering display in Westminster Abbey for Charles II coronation and of many other monarchs since.
The Royal coffers didn’t contain enough to buy back all his father’s art collection, so Charles cannily offered an amnesty. Anybody that returned stuff back to the Royal collection would not be prosecuted. People were keen to curry favour with the new monarch and many items were restored to the Royal walls. In the Royal Collection today and on show here is the proclamation of the amnesty.
Charles loved art and loved ladies. He had Sir Peter Lely paint many of his favourites, known today as the Lely Lovelies, here they hang altogether along a wall looked over by a magnificent portrait of the King in his robes of state.
Foreign monarchs fell over themselves to shower the new King with paintings that took their place alongside the old King’s collection. My favourite of all the paintings on show at the Queen’s Gallery? It is this Boy Looking through a Casement. I love the way that he looks so cheeky. The painting has quite a story too, it was in the collection of Prince Henry, Charles II’s older brother, and was sold in the Commonwealth Sale to Robert Houghton for £3 (along with another painting) before being given back.
Charles II is known as the Merry Monarch and this exhibition shows why. He loved beautiful things; art, women, furniture, all of which are on display here. He also knew the importance of appearance and the potency of royal art and power.
HOW TO SEE ROYAL ART AND POWER
I would opt to see the two exhibitions in chronological order and start at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly, pause for coffee in the Academy cafe and then take a fifteen minute stroll across Green Park to the Buckingham Palace and the Queen’s Gallery. You can buy a combined ticket including tea and cake for £29 from the Royal Collection website.
Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD
27 January 2018 – 15 April
Open: 10am – 6pm daily (until 10pm on Friday)
Admission: £20 concessions are available. Friends of the RA go free.
Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA
8 December 2017 – 13 May 2018
Open: Daily 10am – 5.30pm
Admission: £11 concessions available. Make sure you have your ticket stamped on the way out and it becomes a one year pass
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