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  • Tinx Newton

Charles I, collector of art in troubled times

Charles l - King and Collector

at the Royal Academy, London until Sunday, April 15.


Charles I, by Anthony van Dyck,

The first half of the 17th century was a fairly turbulent time for England and its neighbours, and presiding over England, Scotland and Ireland for 24 of those years was Charles l. As a king he gets mixed press, as an avid art collector who gathered together some magnificent work by the most esteemed painters and sculptors, he gets full applause. During his reign (1625 to 1649) he assembled one of Europe’s most extraordinary collections and by the time of his death he had amassed an incredible 2,000 paintings and sculptures.

The current exhibition at the Royal Academy, Charles l - King and Collector, in partnership with the Royal Collection Trust, was curated by Per Rumberg, (Curator at the RA) and Desmond Shawe-Taylor (Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures). Sponsored by BNY Mellon, this is a wonderful exhibition well worth waiting for and celebrates the work of truly brilliant artists such as Anthony van Dyck, Rubens, Holbein, Veronese and Titian. A whole gallery is devoted to the magnificent Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna, and in anther room, the Mortlake tapestries hold a mysterious beauty of their own.

Charles l - King and Collector was five years in the making, partly due to the far flung distribution of some of the acquired works. 140 major works have been reunited for the first time since the 17th century, and there is great relief in the art world that these works exist at all for, after Charles I’s execution in 1649, his collection was put up for sale and consequently dispersed throughout Europe. After the ‘Cromwellian years’ many of these works were retrieved by Charles ll during the Restoration, and some are now in collections such as the Louvre and the Museo Nacional del Prado.

In this beautifully curated exhibition at the RA, we learn that Charles l was an almost obsessive art collector. In 1623, two years before he came to the throne, his interest by a visit to The Habsberg Collection in Vienna where he bought a number of works. He went on to acquire the esteemed Gonzaga Collection, gathered by the Rulers of Manua and then travelled across Europe, gathering wonderful works of art, while back home there was increasing unrest amongst the people.

While civil war simmered, Charles l loved to have his portrait painted, initially by the Netherlandish artist Daniel Mytens who was appointed in 1625 as ‘one of our picture drawers’. As court artist, Mytens introduced a new elegance and grandeur into English portraiture, especially in his full-length work, and he was the dominant painter at court until the arrival of van Dyck in 1632. It is van Dyck’s paintings that dominate this exhibition and his monumental portraits of the King and his family are fantastic in their size and vital historical detail. His beautiful Italian sketch book is fascinating to view - it was accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax and given to the British Museum in 1957 and is in fine condition. These very personal and much loved sketch books give such a rich insight into an artist’s thoughts and way of working.

Charles l married Henrietta Maria, the daughter of Henry lV of France, in 1625, just a few months after he came to the throne. She was just 15, and amongst their many surviving children were two sons, the future James II and Charles II. In Gallery Vlll we see the Queen’s own art collection which was held at her main residence, Somerset House. Her pictures feature strong and powerful women - The Finding of Moses by Orazio Gentileschi, and Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori being two such examples.

Further highlights in the exhibition include the celebrated Mortlake tapestries of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles, arguably the most spectacular set of tapestries ever produced in England. Also on display is the inventory of Charles l’s art collection as compiled by Abraham van der Doort, a fascinating book that provides details of the artistic tastes within the King’s circle.

Charles l: King and Collector includes over 90 works lent by Her Majesty the Queen from the Royal Collection. Rather conveniently, just down the road, an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, called Charles ll: Art & Power is showing at the same time. After over a decade of austere Cromwellian rule following the reign of Charles l, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 led to a resurgence of the arts in England. The court of Charles II became the centre for the patronage of leading artists and the collecting of great works of art, which served as decoration for the royal apartments and also as a means of glorifying the restored monarchy. A visit to both these exhibitions gives the whole glorious picture of the art collections of two fascinating kings, and a better understanding of life under unsettled rule in 17th century England.

Charles 1: King and Collector at the Royal Academy, London, until Sunday, April 15, 2018. www.royalacademy.org.uk Tel: 0207 300 8090

Charles ll: Art and Power at The Queen’s Gallery, London, until Sunday, 13 May 2018. www.royalcollection.org.uk

Review: Tinx Newton

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