In 1625, Peter Paul Rubens described Charles I as ‘the greatest amateur of painting among the princes of the world.’ During the course of his twenty-four-year reign, Charles established one of the most impressive collections of art in Europe, amassing over 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures. Prior to his accession, the English royal households were decorated with primarily Tudor dynastic portraits and tapestries. Charles’s collection, comprising antique sculptures, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, tapestries and contemporary commissions by artists in England and abroad, would have been a magnificent spectacle. It also played a crucial role in influencing the knowledge of, and appreciation for, art in England.
Following his execution in 1649, his artworks were sold off and dispersed throughout Europe, with many of the finest pieces entering the royal collections of France and Spain. Only 400 surviving works dispersed around the globe are known to have once belonged to Charles – and currently 140 of them are on display at the Royal Academy in a landmark exhibition which celebrates the artistic legacy of this infamous king.
The first room of the exhibition introduces some of the key characters involved in making and assembling the collection, including artists, dealers, and members of the royal family. Charles’s image is instantly recognisable. In the centre of the room, the intriguing portrait of Charles I in Three Positions by Antony van Dyck (from the Royal Collection Trust), is shrewdly placed behind a statue of the king by François Dieussart (Loaned by the Duke of Norfolk, Arundel Castle). This striking display not only hints at the famous lost statue of Charles by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (which was modelled from Van Dyck's triple portrait that was produced especially for Bernini as Charles and the sculptor didn't meet in Person). It also suggests the inimitable role van Dyck played in moulding the king’s public persona.
Indeed, as one progresses through the exhibition, van Dyck’s presence becomes all the more pervasive and powerful. In the Central Hall, three of his most iconic portraits of Charles are grouped together for the first time in history. This grandiose display includes the outstanding portrait of Charles I at the Hunt (from the Musée du Louvre, Paris) hung alongside Charles I with M. de St Antoine (again, from the Royal Collection Trust) and the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I (lent by the National Gallery, London).
Through the vista of a doorway to the sixth gallery, one can also see Charles I and Henrietta Maria with Prince Charles and Princess Mary (loaned by the Royal Collection Trust).
All four of these colossal portraits reveal different aspects of Charles as a ruler: the huntsman at ease, the cavalier, the powerful king, the family man. The visual impact is astonishing and accentuates the crucial role that art played in proclaiming Charles’s might and majesty.
Charles acquired a wide range of art during the course of his reign, some by design, others by accident. The second room of the exhibition reveals the types of work which he obtained when he first began his collection in the 1620s. The quality and scale of the art on display is extraordinary, particularly the sensitive portrait of Charles V with a Dog by Titian (from the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), given to him by Philip IV of Spain during a visit to Madrid in 1623, and the National Gallery’s Venus with Mercury and Cupid (‘The School of Love’) by Correggio, obtained in 1628 when Charles acquired the bulk of the celebrated Gonzaga collection in Mantua.
The remaining rooms of the exhibition focus on a particular aspect of Charles’s taste and contain a group of works which once hung together, allowing us to imagine how they would have been experienced in the seventeenth century. The most successful example of this is an intimate room devoted to the Italian Renaissance where three beautiful works by Titian are displayed in the sequence in which they once hung in the First Privy Lodging Room at Whitehall. The sight of the Conjugal Allegory and Supper at Emmaus (both Musée du Louvre, Paris) together with The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to his Troops (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) on a single wall is remarkable and one can instantly see why Charles was so enamoured with Titian.
The exhibition has been five years in the making and offers a unique opportunity to view some of the finest works in Charles’s collection reunited for the first time since the seventeenth century. As part of the celebration of the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary, this is an historic exhibition, excellently installed and thoughtfully presented, which offers a thorough overview of the types of work which interested Charles and the means by which he acquired them. The exhibition is a visual feast which allows the visitor to envisage the sumptuous and rich decoration of the royal palaces at this key moment in history.
Words by Amy Parrish
Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 15 April 2018