GIULIO DALVIT // Charles I: King and Collector

Charles I: King and Collector

The Royal Academy of Art, London, 27 January – 15 April 2018.

Echoing Horace’s Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, the poet Edmund Waller (1606-1687), looking at Charles I’s (1600-1649) reinstalled equestrian bronze statue at Charing Cross, proclaimed that ‘kings so killed ride conquerors again’. Inept a ruler as he may have been, Charles nevertheless amassed one of the most impressive art collections of all time, and attracted to his court artists like Gentileschi, Rubens, and Van Dyck. Disbanded after the King’s execution, this in reality short-lived and ephemeral collection, much like the Charing Cross statue, would later be partly reacquired and firmly revived as a landmark in the development of ‘English taste’.

The postbellum dispersal of Charles’ collection altered the geographic distribution of masterpieces, if not the demographic composition of art collectors in Europe as a whole. Though partially re-acquired by the Crown, which was by far this exhibition’s most cooperative lender, many masterpieces never made their way back across the Channel. The reunion of all the surviving paintings once owned by the King would be an impossible task for any institution and was not the aim of this exhibition. This, as the catalogue states, was to ‘develop a more nuanced understanding of how [Charles’ collection] was assembled and what it came to represent’ – a formula which expresses the combination of what can be achieved through an exhibition catalogue and the display which it complements, respectively.

The curators at the Royal Academy, Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, managed to borrow a significant selection of works, undoubtedly giving visitors a sense of the scale and magnificence of the King’s collection, and allowing them to grasp that at his court collecting foreign contemporary art came to represent, for the first time in England, money and prestige. Starting with a visual introduction to the key figures at court who were instrumental in acquiring artworks, the visitor was led through beautifully hung rooms of Charles’ Italian and Northern art, exploring the importance of his visit to Madrid in 1623 and his acquisition of the Gonzaga collection, which included Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs (where the attribution of the last three should be questioned) and ancient statues. In the following rooms, the visitors could familiarise themselves with portraits of Charles and his family, his cabinet, four of the lavish hangings made at Mortlake after Raphael’s cartoons, and some of Queen Henrietta Maria’s (1609-1669) own commissions. Commendably, every label included, when possible, the buyer and the price of the item at the Commonwealth sale, alluding to the afterlife of objects that were in Charles’ hands, while at the same time challenging the modern viewer’s assumptions on the high or low status of some of the works on view, including reproductions. Also praiseworthily, the panels included references to sites and monuments in London which pointed visitors towards a Caroline geography of London.

Naturally, a number of desiderata could not be loaned for the exhibition, and although some proxies such as engravings could have suggested the presence of things irretrievable and more images in the catalogue illustrate what could not be on show, it would be silly to judge an exhibition of this scale and prestige for what was not there. Yet, at least three lacunae were evident in the selection of the exhibits, which made it clear that the aim of the show was to reinstall magnificently a portion of Charles’ collection more than it was to close in on ‘Charles I [as] King and Collector’. First, Charles’ ‘Royall liking for sculptures’ and the importance of the King’s decision to set up a foundry parallel to the Mortlake tapestry works was largely, if not wholly, disregarded. Second, little was there to suggest the quotidian materiality of Charles the man and his houses – the clothes, arms, furniture, books, the physical world of a seventeenth-century monarch. Last, but most importantly, the exhibition surprisingly refused to engage with what virtually defined Charles’ rule as King – the Civil War.

Unfortunately, the catalogue essays fundamentally mirror the room sequence of the exhibition and therefore fail to rectify these lacunae. The thematic approach of both the rooms and the essays does not allow for a meticulous reconstruction of how the collection was assembled; nor can it do justice to some key figures gravitating around the court, whose names are repeated over and again across the book, but whose life, career, artistic commissions, and purchases are never satisfactorily unpacked. Among them were Charles’ elder brother Henry, James Hamilton, François Langlois, Nicolas Lanier, Endymion Porter, Balthazar Gerbier, Kenelm Digby, the Earl (and Countess!) of Arundel and the Duke of Buckingham. With the notable exception of Helen Wyld’s essay focusing on the Mortlake tapestries after Raphael, the essays do not manage to ask some fundamental questions about the political significance of the images in the collection, be it before Charles’ execution, when he had to negotiate the meaning of Catholic images flooding the palaces of a Protestant king, or after, when Oliver Cromwell’s (1599-1658) taste for Caesarean images (including Mantegna’s Triumphs) warrants further study. Nor do they explore how Charles’ newly-acquired pictures articulated different meanings for objects inherited from his predecessors, which he did not dispose of.

Painting of Charles I in three positions
Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Charles I (1600-1649) in three positions, 1635-before June 1636, oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm, Royal Collection Trust, London. Courtesy of Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

In the end, the figure of Charles hovers over the essays, but their piecemeal approach struggles to reconcile the many conflicting facets of his attitude towards collecting. Charles was many things. He was ‘le prince le plus amateur de la peinture qui soit au monde’, yet one who, as Rumberg acutely points out, aligned with conventionally Carraccian ideals. He collected art never older than Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is for us; yet, he arguably failed to grasp the pathbreaking importance of the just-dead Caravaggio (1571-1610), which many of his contemporaries promptly understood. Even more puzzling was his attitude towards Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), whom he seems to have treated as something of a Titianesque-brushstroked Daniël Mytens (1590-1647) – a paint-smith who could produce portraits at a speedy pace. Of course, it is perfectly pointless from a historical point of view to express contempt or praise for Charles’ attitudes towards collecting. However, it is only by trying to articulate in depth the nature of Charles’ collection that we can, on the one hand, measure its importance in the broader unfolding of the history of art and of its collecting, and, on the other hand, adjust the inadequacies of our modern outlook onto the past. In object-based terms, the question would ultimately be: how come Charles underpaid and promptly shipped to France what we today consider his most riveting portrait, the so-called Le Roi ‘à la chasse’ from the Louvre? Unfortunately, despite the painting providing the cover of the catalogue, the answer is not to be found in it.

Thus, to comprehend the importance of this episode of collecting in English and European history, one still needs to resort to older publications, not least Francis Haskell’s compelling The King’s Pictures. But, incontestably, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition is going to loom large in the public imagination for its memorable hanging, its triumphal procession of masterpieces, and its majestic éclat.