One of the many ways we can shape our history is to see it as a continual battle between democracy and kingship in all its forms, that has played out across the centuries. The Bridge Theatre’s brilliant revival of Julius Caesar is a reminder that these debates have raged for millennia and Nicholas Hytner’s fascinating production shows us the bloody consequences of one of the earliest clashes between state and individual ruler. And while today a low rumbling of republican sentiment remains, it somehow remains exactly that, low – our modern benign monarchy being inoffensive enough to suppress any serious attempts to tear it down.
One of the major reasons for this is because it all happened once before, the multitudinous consequences of which are still felt today. The execution of Charles I in January 1649 is one of the most momentous events in British history; never before or since had an English reigning monarch been tried and executed by their own people, although plenty had been deposed by court factions and invading claimants to the throne or mysteriously ‘disappeared’. Now, more than 450 years later it’s difficult to understand the wide-ranging effect Charles’s execution had – a monarch who he and most others believed was divinely appointed by, and only answerable to, God. As the Royal Academy’s brilliant new exhibition demonstrates that crucial axe blow had one little-known consequence, it created the modern art market.
Forget elaborate heists and the occasional desecration, arguably the republican fire-sale that followed Charles’s death is one of the greatest art crimes in history. It broke-up probably the finest collection of early-modern and renaissance art of the era, selling much of it cheaply to the highest bidder. It was a brash, barbarous and unforgiving act that stripped the Royal Collection and meant that some of today’s most valuable paintings were quickly snapped-up by the courts of Europe or private collectors. Through painstaking research and lots of diplomacy, the Royal Academy has reunited much of this work for the first time in over four centuries in its big spring show Charles I: King and Collector.
As you enter the first gallery to be stared at by some of the leading artists and creatives of the day, including Charles himself, there is an overwhelming sense of the significance of what you’re about to see. The RA, of course, has produced some of the most remarkable shows of the last 10 years including David Hockney: A Bigger Picture in 2012 and Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse in 2016. But there is an extra magic in this new exhibition which continually presses upon you; it is a rare and probably never to be repeated chance to see a collection of paintings, bronzes, busts, drawings and miniatures that no one has seen together for at least 450 years, or, given the distribution of the artefacts around the various royal palaces in the seventeenth-century, has never been seen in one suite of rooms by anyone before, not even Charles himself.
As you gaze at the stunning three-sided portrait of him by Anthony van Dyck painted in 1635-36, which dominates the first room, you see a man with many aspects to his character; not only a terrible political decision-maker and failed King, but a devoted family man whose wife and children appear repeatedly in the works on show, as well as a second son who was never meant to rule at all, a keenly religious sovereign, and a man with cultivated and judicious artistic sensitivities. All of this complexity is reflected in the rooms that follow, the shear amount of work on display demonstrating not only a quite pronounced taste in the art Charles acquired – or at the very least the sense to listen to advisers on what to buy – but an understanding of both traditional and emerging forms of artistic expression, purchasing classic pieces from the previous century, as well as supporting emerging talent in the newly commissioned artists within his own court.
And this is where it all begins, with the ream of famous names that created work for Charles in one of the greatest periods of artistic patronage. Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck are just two of the famous names to have worked for Charles, ensuring their place in art history by significantly changing the nature of expression and the psychological representation of their subjects as they did it. As well as self-portraits of both men, the first gallery also sets out the key players including Charles’s friend the Duke of Buckingham captured as a mythological hero on horseback by Rubens in 1625, the year of the young King’s accession, and his Queen Henrietta Maria, depicted by van Dyck in one of his finest works in 1633 (Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson), who sought exile in France with her children in the midst of the Civil War, but herself amassed a fine collection of work showcased later in the exhibition.
As you wander round, as well as the images and stories shown in the painting, their own future life is detailed in the explanatory signs, with every plaque giving a clear indication of where the painting ended up – ranging from gallery collections in Europe such as the Louvre to America’s National Gallery of Art in Washington and Frick Collection in New York. Most fascinating is the price paid for it during the bargain sale of the early 1650s which in essence created the art market today, adding what is essentially arbitrary value to each piece, taking what anyone would pay for it. While one of Titian’s masterpieces went for £800 (c. £60,000), some pieces went for as little as £4 or £5 (c. £300 or c.£380 today) including a fantastic tiny image of A Witch Riding a Goat Backwards from c.1596-98 by Adam Elsheimer which is worth £5 of anyone’s money. And most interesting to note is how many of these objects have ended up back in British collections, repurchased in the ensuing centuries and often the property of the Queen, making this again a rare chance to see objects from the current Royal Collection, while at least three of the paintings were paid to the state in lieu of tax owed by some strapped aristocrat.
Most impressive of these is a room dedicated to the The Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna created between 1485 and 1506 across 9 separately created panels representing one celebratory event. These huge canvases, paled by the years, each depict one aspect of the event, including the march of the elephants, a collection of musicians and some of the purloined treasures from Caesar’s conquests paraded for the Roman people. As with much art in this period, the people look rather more medieval than classically Roman, but the detail and sense of chaos in Mantegna’s images are astounding. He captures the verve and excitement of the Triumph, building to the final piece showing Caesar himself with winged lackey holding a laurel wreath over his head – but crucially with face turned away to remind him of his mortality.
There are plenty of religious and mythological subjects on hand, not least in the paintings Charles owned by Titian, and in sections dedicated to ‘The Northern Renaissance’ and ‘The Italian Renaissance’ suggesting how meaningful these subjects were to the British royal family at the time. And Titian fans will be delighted to see plenty of his work on display, including a characterful portrait of Charles V painted in 1533, the depiction of Jesus convincing two disciples of his resurrection in The Supper at Emmaus from 1534 and the striking The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops painted in 1540-41, one of the many pictures full of symbols of regality and power that are striking across Charles’s collection.
There are royal family portraits in abundance as well, most notably in a room dedicated largely to van Dyck’s images of Charles, Henrietta Maria and their children, deliberately depicting a stable, loving family with Charles at its head. The Great Peece from 1632 show the family with two of their children in the foreground with Westminster depicted behind. Intended to suggest the King’s dominion over Parliament, it’s sadly foreboding seen from this side of the execution. Equally laden with meaning is the rather charming Charles I and Henrietta Maria Holding a Laurel Wreath painted by van Dyck in 1632 as a celebration of a victory, with the Queen handing her husband a symbol of peace in return. It’s an intimate but still stately image as Henrietta Maria gazes openly at the viewer, while its style predicates the couples-portraiture of the eighteenth-century. There’s also some rarely-seen delicate Holbein drawings from The Royal Collection as well as miniatures of Charles’s antecedents including his elder brother Henry who died before ascending the throne.
These are bolstered by the centrepiece of the exhibition, a central chamber filled with glorious portraits of Charles himself, each laden with regal and heraldic symbolism but filled by the sad-eyed stare of the man never raised to rule. Now in the Louvre, van Dycke’s Charles I in the Hunting Field from 1636 shows the King at the height of his Personal Rule (where he dismissed Parliament for more than a decade) looking imperious and fashionable in a country scene. Opposite this is Charles I with M. de St Antoine painted in 1633 depicting the monarch riding through a triumphal arch on horseback, shown as every inch the chivalric warrior King. Best of all, borrowed from its usual home in the National Gallery, is one of my favourite paintings, the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I from 1636-37 which is laden with heraldic meaning and, despite having a stunted horse’s head to ensure Charles looks more powerful, is one of the most imposing and magnificent depictions of Kingship ever painted.
Taking the best part of two hours to see and containing well over 100 works of art Charles I: King and Collector is an incredible achievement and a once in the whole of history chance to see one of the finest art collections ever created. The Royal Academy’s success is crowned by the astonishing and personal story of a tragic ruler whose disastrous political affairs have dominated modern understanding. Each picture gives us a 450-year story of how Charles’s treasured collection became fragmented and sold in the scorched earth days after the execution. More than this, however, the exhibition only serves to reinforce Charles’s importance in British history and, with statues, churches and images all over modern London, why the circumstances of his life, trial and execution continue to haunt us.
Charles I: King and Collector is at the Royal Academy until 15 April. Tickets are £18 (without donation) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1