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… is what I might have called this superb exhibition.

This coming Monday is the anniversary of the execution of Charles I in 1649 on a scaffold outside his beloved Banqueting House, the ceiling of which he commissioned Rubens to decorate with a paean to his father, James I, strongly emphasising the divine right of kings. One of Rubens’s preparatory sketches for this work is featured at the new exhibition at the Royal Academy: Charles I: King and Collector. It opens on Saturday and runs until 15 April.

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Apart from literature and to a lesser extent architecture and fashion, England lagged horribly behind Europe when it came to the visual arts, in the case of Italy by over a century. We were bumpkins. Sure, we had an appreciation for a fine portrait and used some of Europe’s top practitioners to produce that genre, but that was pretty much it. Owing to the English Reformation, religious art never took off, in fact most had been ravaged. As to myth and allegory, beloved by Renaissance princes across the continent… here we had tumbleweed.

Charles set out to change all that. Having been exposed to the collection of Philip IV of Spain on a visit in 1623 the then Prince of Wales was hooked. The Spanish king gave him century-old portrait of his ancestor the Emperor Charles V by Titian – a spectacular gift. This painting features in the exhibition, next to the famous Velázquez portrait of Philip. Charles immediately became a serious collector, determined to have a collection the equal of any European prince. Among his many acquisitions he scooped up almost the entire collection of the once mighty Gonzaga family of Mantua, notably the output of Andrea Mantegna, here represented by all nine monumental paintings of the Triumphs of Caesar from Hampton Court Palace.

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Andrea Mantegna (1430 – 1506). The Triumph of Caesar, Vase Bearers.

Naturally, Anthony Van Dyke looms large. The famous triple portrait, a guide for Bernini to fashion the king’s portrait bust; the two monumental equestrian portraits, so powerful; the artist’s self-portrait, glancing over his shoulder, anxiously it seems. All are here.

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Anthony Van Dyk (1599 – 1641). Charles I in Three Positions.

Then there are here assembled many dozens more of the king’s fancies by the leading European painters – mainly contemporary but going back 150 years – Correggio, Bronzino, Bassano, Tintoretto, Vernonese, Holbein, Durer. Galleries – notably El Prado and the Louvre, but many others – have joined the Royal Collection to bring together the best assemblage of Charles’s collection since that cold, fateful January day in 1649.

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Titian (1490 -1586). The Supper at Emmaus.

Virtually all artistic talent at Charles’s disposal was foreign, apart from Londoner William Dobson, here represented by a marvellous portrait of Charles II when prince of Wales. I always look out for Dobson, the first great English painter, who died in poverty an alcoholic, aged just 36.

For the historian, what happened next is fascinating. As we know, virtually the entire collection was sold off over the next three years or so by the commonwealth: it needed money, not fripperies. Thanks to the catalogue of the first Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, Abraham van der Doort, we know where all these pieces were kept down to the very room. Mostly it was the now long-lost Palace of Whitehall, but also Hampton Court Palace, the Queen’s House, Denmark House etc. We also know what each piece fetched at the various commonwealth sales. Each label in the exhibition carries this information. Hence we see, for example, that a piece by Correggio featuring Venus, Mercury and Cupid fetched £800, whereas another – hung here next to it – of Mars, Venus and Cupid by Veronese commanded just £11! Poor old Veronese. A religious painting from the Circle of Raphael also fetched £800 whereas a gorgeous picture by Titian – many times bigger – could only draw £150. These were substantial amounts of money at that time, of course, but the interest lies, I think, in the relative perceived merits of art at the time, by artist and no doubt also by subject.

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Correggio (1489 -1534). Venus with Mercury and Cupid.

After the Restoration, Charles II had to build from scratch the Royal Collection, including the crown jewels. How he did this is featured in a companion exhibition to this one: Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen’s Gallery.  Do go to both. They are sumptuous and wonderfully curated.


This exhibition and RA250 is supported by BNY Mellon.

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