Charles I King and Collector

Reuniting some of a magnificent collection raises questions, says John Westbrooke

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Charles I is a paradox: maybe England’s worst king, and yet the one with the best art. Or perhaps it’s not a paradox at all?

The Royal Academy’s new show, King and Collector, documents the founding of what is now the Royal Collection. Charles, who reigned from 1625 to 1649 before being overthrown and executed, wasn’t the first royal with a taste for art. Henry VIII had appointed the German artist Hans Holbein as King’s Painter, to portray the court and nobility. His daughter Elizabeth I commissioned numerous portraits of herself to show herself to her subjects.

In part, Charles did the same. In 1632, he hired the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck as Principalle Paynter in Ordinarie to their Majesties, and his stunning portraits form the core of the exhibition. The king wanted the Italian sculptor Bernini to produce a bust, so van Dyck painted a triple portrait – showing him facing left, right and straight ahead – for Bernini to work from. The bust itself was destroyed in a fire in 1698, but the portrait survives.

Perhaps because it wasn’t intended for display, it’s noticeably different from Holbein’s most famous Henry, a great bear of a man in ornate costume, standing with legs apart challenging the spectator “You talking to me?”, and from the many elaborately symbolic full-length portraits of his daughter.

Instead we have three half-length portraits, still luxurious in lace and satin but less aggressive. Charles, it seems, doesn’t need to throw his weight around, he’s calmly self confident, maybe a little reflective or even sad – viewers will have to make up their own minds exactly what his expressionless face shows.

In one of van Dyck’s best works, “Charles I in the Hunting Field”, Charles is full length. His horse stands behind him, head bowed, exhausted and attended by a groom, but the king himself, still richly dressed, turns to look at the painter as if he hasn’t even broken sweat from his exertion, the epitome of regal cool.

This is hung alongside two huge equestrian portraits in which he’s on the horse. Van Dyck may have intended a metaphor showing him calmly guiding the state, but if so it’s got out of hand. The horses are disproportionately big. It’s just possible they were specially bred for magnificence – the Stuart dynasty did take a keen interest in horseflesh – but in “Charles I on Horseback” he seems to bestride a great lump of lard with a small head stuck on it.

Among van Dyck’s other portraits on display are several Stuart family portraits, part charming and part formal, and one of Queen Henrietta Maria with the court dwarf, who makes her look rather taller than she really was.

But Charles’s ambitions went much further than dynastic propaganda. Exposed to mainstream European art, he bought paintings as well as commissioning them; he and the queen hung them in their numerous palaces – Whitehall, St James’s, Somerset House.

He seems to have got the bug in 1621, when he left England in secret (donning a fake beard and calling himself Jack Smith) to woo a Spanish princess. It was a humiliating failure, but he stayed in Madrid for months, awed by the king’s art collection: 1000 paintings, many by by the Italian Titian. He started buying his own Titians, and was given a couple by the king. One of them, “Charles V with a Dog”, foreshadows the sort of thing he would later commission himself: full-length, sombre, the subject’s strength and inner certainty underlined by a huge, loyal hound (and a fair-sized codpiece). He returned home with further Titians, a Veronese, a Correggio and more.

He kept on buying, notably the collection of the Gonzaga, the family who ruled Mantua but had fallen on hard times. He was also given paintings by friends and contacts. Among them were not just the Italian renaissance and baroque works, by Leonardo and Raphael among others, that were popular at the time, but also many from northern Europe: Durer, Bruegel, Rembrandt and more Holbeins. An inventory drawn up before he became king listed 21 paintings. After his execution, another revealed that he had 1500, and 500 sculptures.

But the ironies start to kick in. Charles wasn’t the sturdy figure of the paintings. A sickly child, he didn’t talk till he was four, or walk till he was seven. The man atop the huge horses was only 5ft 4in.

The pictures may hint at his unshakeable belief in the Divine Right of Kings (to do whatever they liked), but his subjects didn’t share it. History judges his reign harshly.

It’s never easy dealing with a wave of religious fundamentalism, and he had to cope with Catholic Europe (England’s own Catholics were suppressed, but still around, after the gunpowder plot), Anglicans high and low, and insurgent Puritans who had little time for lace, satin or voluptuous Correggios. But he bungled it hopelessly, alienated them all, and after years of civil war was send to the block – walking to it through the Banqueting House (still in Whitehall), under the magnificent ceiling commissioned by Charles, painted by Rubens and depicting his father, James I, ascending to heaven.

However, the new ruler, Oliver Cromwell, had money problems, as Charles had before him, so most of the art collection was put up for sale. The plumber was given a painting as payment – it was a Jacopo Bassano work called “The Flood”; even Puritans had a sense of humour, it seems – and the sales raised the best part of £200,000.

Captions show what the paintings sold for. The Correggio, “Venus with Mercury and Cupid”, fetched a hefty £800. Charles on horseback made £200, perhaps from a royalist sympathiser. A little depiction of a witch riding backwards on a goat went for £5; but if that was too much, you could have had Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother for just £4 and spent the other £1 on a small bag of chips. Clearly, not all Englishmen had the late king’s aesthetic tastes.

So a magnificent art collection was dispersed. After the Restoration, Charles II got back what he could, by hook or by crook, and it forms the basis of the current huge collection. But much of it also went into other European collections in the Louvre, the Prado and the Hermitage. A shame, perhaps, but that’s how so many works came to Charles in the first place. The RA’s exhibition, celebrating its own 250th anniversary, has reunited about 140 of them for the first time.

Getting back to the paradox: perhaps it’s no surprise that the man who spent so much time on art didn’t spend enough with his people. And the Royal Collection today is still a private affair, though the queen insists that she holds it on behalf of the public. Is it time the public was able to see it all for themselves whenever they want, rather than at intermittent exhibitions, however impressive this one may be?

Charles I King and Collector is at the Royal Academy until 15 April; tickets £18, concessions available. A similar exhibition on Charles II is at the Queen’s Gallery, a mile away, until 13 May.