The rotten king with an exquisite taste in art

The Royal Academy’s new exhibition reunites paintings from Charles I’s legendary collection

In 1623 Charles Stuart, the Prince of Wales, went to Madrid to woo Maria Anna, the sister of King Philip IV of Spain. He came home without a bride (Maria Anna, a Catholic, regarded Charles, an Anglican, as an infidel) but he did bring several Titians and a Veronese back to Britain. Charles had fallen in love – not with Maria Anna, but with the glories of Renaissance art.

Two years later, in 1625, his father, James I, died and Charles became king of England. He was now free to realise his ambition, to assemble the greatest royal art collection that Britain had ever seen.

Cupid and Psyche by Anthony van Dyck (Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

He didn’t have much competition. James I had no interest in art, and the Tudors had collected very little. King Charles I quickly made up for lost time. During the next 20 years he acquired 2000 artworks, particularly Italian Renaissance masters. He also persuaded two of Europe’s leading contemporary painters – Rubens and Van Dyck – to come to England. Van Dyck became his court painter, bequeathing a wealth of brilliant and penetrating portraits of the cultured and conceited monarch who plunged England into a bloody and ruinous civil war. This civil war curtailed Charles’s collecting. It also cost 300,000 lives and cost the king his head.

After Charles was executed, in 1649, Oliver Cromwell put his royal collection up for sale. This was partly practical (after five years of Civil War, the government coffers were empty) but it was also political. Like the kings of France and Spain, whose power and prestige he emulated, Charles’s art collection was a symbol of his autocratic status, and his belief in the divine right of kings.

Charles’s paintings were put on show at Somerset House. Anyone could come and see them. These pictures had never been seen in public – there were no public galleries back then. A Raphael sold for £2000 (a fortune in 1649) but a Rembrandt went for just £6. This was the first time ordinary people had been able to see Charles’s art collection, and the last time – until now.

Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers by Andrea Mantegna (Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

The idea of reassembling this collection has fascinated curators for decades, but it was always regarded as impossible. Many of the key works had ended up in the Louvre or the Prado, and never left Paris or Madrid. However, to mark the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary, the RA decided to give it a go, and the result is this remarkable exhibition, which reunites 150 of Charles’s greatest paintings. Four of his Titians have returned to Britain for the first time since the 17th Century, alongside one of Van Dyck’s finest portraits of the King, now owned by the Louvre.

After the Restoration, Charles II tried to reassemble his father’s lost collection. He was unable to recoup the artworks that had gone abroad (the plums of the collection) but most of the works that had remained in Britain were hastily returned, and ended up in the Royal Collection. Consequently, there are dozens of wonderful loans in this show from the Queen, including Van Dyck’s hypnotic triple portrait of Charles I (a study for an abortive bust and one of our own Prince Charles’s favourite paintings).

The Supper at Emmaus by Titian (RMN-Grand Palais, Musée du Louvre/ Stéphane Maréchalle)

So was Charles I a true connoisseur or was his collection merely for show? There’s no doubt that its main purpose was to impress other monarchs and their ambassadors, and to bolster his authority with his own courtiers – to remind everyone who was the boss. However, this exhibition confirms that Charles wasn’t only interested in star names. He also had a superb eye. No wonder Rubens called him ‘The greatest lover of paintings among the princes of the world.’ Charles may have been a rotten monarch but, like a lot of tyrants, he had exquisite taste.

Charles I – King & Collector is at the Royal Academy from January 27 to April 15


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