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Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy of Arts: Review

A set of paintings with regal provenance returns to the country for the first time since the 17th century, in the Royal Academy of Arts' latest exhibition

Unfortunately, Charles I is probably best known for having his head chopped off. However, before his head rolled, it was well utilised in the collecting and commissioning of some of the most important art in the world. The Stuart king can take credit for directing Rubens to create the stunning ceiling paintings in Whitehall; appearing as the subject of Anthony van Dyck’s best royal portraits; and amassing work by the likes of Holbein, Titian, Mantegna and many more. By the time he died, his collection comprised about 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures.

After his death, only a small percentage of the collection was salvaged. The rest was dispersed across the world, landing in the archives of The National Gallery, the Musée du Louvre and Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, among others. For the first time, 150 pieces of this unique collection are reunited in the Royal Academy of Arts’ new exhibition Charles I: King and Collector, with many of them returning to the UK for the first time since the 17th century.

Assistant curator Lucy Chiswell explains why this year is the right time to revisit Charles I’s stash: “As the first exhibition of the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary, it felt appropriate to celebrate one of history’s greatest art collectors. There is evidence that Charles I may also have considered the foundation of a Royal Academy of Art 150 years or so before.”

Establishing the Royal Academy in the 17th century would have been a good idea too, because – unless you had access to one of the King’s royal palaces – you would not otherwise get a glimpse of his rich collection. But if you were to receive an invite, the impressive works would have been part of the welcoming party. “Following Charles’s visit to Madrid as Prince of Wales in 1623, he could see the impact that an art collection as impressive as the Habsburgs could have,” Chiswell explains.

By the time Charles I died, his collection comprised about 1,500 paintings and 500 sculptures

“Charles’s best paintings by Titian were in his first privy lodging room at Whitehall Palace – the first of a suite of galleries that visitors would have encountered upon visiting.” And, as is happens, it was Charles’s favourites that were sold off just as he was executed. In the exhibition, Titian’s Supper at Emmaus, Conjugal Allegory and Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops appear on British walls for the first time since the king enjoyed them in Whitehall.

Charles was as much muse as he was collector. Among his impressive horde of Renaissance works are a number depicting himself. He was often the subject of Van Dyck’s creativity, resulting in portraits that, as Chiswell puts it, “did much to position Charles as a mighty and powerful ruler”. The intimacy developed by regular collaboration is clearly depicted in the Flemish artist’s Charles I in the Hunting Field, where the king is shown in the informal engagement of hunting rather than all his finery. Van Dyck was also relied upon to produce unofficial portraits like Charles I in Three Positions, a study of the king intended to help Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a bust.

For all the controversy, parliamentary conflict and civil war that his reign caused, Charles I can certainly be credited with dramatically upgrading England’s collecting culture. “Collecting on this scale had long been a tradition on the continent,” notes Chiswell, “but had not been seen in England before. Charles and other courtiers – notably George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel – led a major cultural phenomenon in England and amassed collections that, for the first time, would rival those in Europe.” 

Charles I: King and Collector, 27 January – 15 April, Royal Academy of Arts, W1J, www.royalacademy.org.uk