All the King's art
When Oliver Cromwell sold off the priceless art collection of Charles I, the results were surprising, says Jerry Brotton. He argues that the historic sale made art available to new strata of society and laid the foundations of the British art market
When King Charles I stepped onto the executioner’s scaffold built off the Banqueting House in Whitehall, on January 30, 1649, he left behind him one of the greatest art collections ever amassed by an English monarch. The sale of the king’s art collection under the Commonwealth regime, following his execution, is one of the great stories of English art history, often distorted or obscured by political partisanship.
Monarchists have regarded the sale with horror: an act of republican vandalism that destroyed and dispersed the priceless art collection of the royal family’s premier art-loving monarch. Republicans tend to dismiss it as secondary to the attempt to establish a new English Commonwealth. However, the sale inadvertently allowed ordinary people to acquire a taste for ‘the late king’s goods’ and created England’s first recognisably modern art market. Londoners traded the dead king’s paintings for financial profit and put a price on monarchy, as well as the artistic value of painters such as Titian, Raphael, Da Vinci and Van Dyck.
During his turbulent 24-year reign, Charles certainly bought and commissioned hundreds of paintings, drawings, sculptures and tapestries by some of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque artists. Like most great collectors, Charles’s interest in the arts developed out of very personal circumstances. As the youngest son of King James I, Charles was never meant to inherit the crown. His charismatic elder brother Henry, himself an aspirant collector, was first in line to the throne. His sudden death in 1610 left Charles as the only surviving heir. Where his intellectual father turned to books and learning, the shy, stammering Charles embraced the more withdrawn, contemplative nature of painting and statuary. He also surrounded himself with a group of courtiers and advisers, such as Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and the architect Inigo Jones, who understood how an art collection could magnify the power of an introverted young prince.
When Prince Charles travelled to Madrid with Buckingham in 1623, in an unsuccessful attempt to woo the Spanish Infanta Maria, he was seduced by the dynastic power and erotic pull of the Titians, commissioned by the Habsburg emperors, Charles V and Philip II. The young Spanish king Philip IV presented Charles with Titian’s Portrait of Charles V with Hound, to suggest the kind of imperial power he could possess if he married into the Habsburg dynasty. The presentation of the sexually charged Venus of El Pardo also promised the pleasures of the flesh to the sexually inexperienced young prince.
England had never seen anything like these lush, imposing paintings and their arrival electrified English portraiture and collecting. Following Charles’s coronation as king in 1625, his advisers encouraged the patronage of internationally acclaimed artists and the purchase of art from European collections. Painting was becoming a diplomatically recognised commodity, offered as a gift in political negotiations, and plundered from rival powers in times of war. In 1627, Charles’s art dealers informed him that the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua were prepared to sell off their art collection to stave off bankruptcy. The fabled collection, which included Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, Raphael’s Holy Family, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, Correggio’s Allegory of Vice and Allegory of Virtue, as well as works by Titian, Giulio Romano and Guido Reni, was one of the finest in Italy. To purchase the collection would confirm Charles’s status as a king and collector on the European stage. Charles bought over 200 pictures, statues and drawings at a cost of £28,000. However, Charles’s Exchequer authorised the payment of just £18,000 on credit. The king’s failure to settle the remaining £10,000 ensured that both his financier and art dealer went bankrupt.
Charles’s reputation for collecting attracted the attention of various European artists. In 1629, Rubens arrived in London, not initially to paint, but to broker peace in the five-year war between England and Spain. Before leaving, he gave King Charles his Allegory of Peace and War. Showing the personification of Peace oblivious to the spectre of Mars, the god of war, who is about to unleash the Furies, the painting offered Charles a glimpse of what might happen if he failed to agree peace. In response, he signed a treaty with Spain and hung Rubens’s picture in Whitehall. Charles also lured Van Dyck to England to paint a series of portraits based on the Titians he saw in Madrid. These included Charles I with M. de St Antoine, painted following Charles’s attempt to impose a new Prayer Book on the Scots. The painting’s Roman style, of a conquering emperor riding in triumph through an imperial arch, complete with the unified British coat of arms, made its political import unmistakable.
However, where Charles and his advisers saw assured absolute power, his opponents saw arrogance and tyranny. Following years of Civil War that ended with the king’s execution in January 1649, the republican Parliament’s decision to sell off the royal collection was both a political and financial decision. The Act for the sale of the late king’s goods, passed in the summer of 1649, aimed to settle the debts incurred by the royal household, as well as providing money for the republican regime’s navy. The Act appointed trustees to oversee the inventory-taking of the royal palaces and sale of the king’s goods, which included everything from pots and pans, to Titians and Raphaels. By putting a price on everything, the republican regime was explicitly stripping the royal goods of their aura of majesty.
The results were startling. The Titians generally retained their value. The Venus of El Pardo brought from Madrid was valued at £500, and Portrait of Charles V with Hound and Venus with Organist both valued at £150. The Mantuan Correggios were valued much higher at £1,000 each — a high point in the painter’s reputation; his florid style appealed to the baroque courts of the day. Raphael’s Holy Family remained one of the jewels of the collection — bought for approximately £1,000 from Mantua, the trustees valued it at £2,000. Van Dyck’s Charles I with M. de St Antoine was rated at £150. Considering Van Dyck’s bill for such large royal portraits had been £100, the trustees’ valuation seems accurate. Through ignorance or religious prejudice, less celebrated pictures and artists went on sale at bargain prices. Van Dyck’s royalist portraits could be snapped up for as little as £10. Rembrandt’s Old Woman was wrongly listed as ‘A Man’s Head’ and valued at just £4.
The first buyers were equally surprising. Army officers who had fought against King Charles bought dozens of smaller paintings, often of religious subject matter ostensibly at odds with their Puritan sympathies. However, many wanted to reinvest in the new republic, and take possession of the paraphernalia of monarchy. Colonel John Hutchinson, who put his name to the king’s death warrant, spent a staggering £2,000 on paintings. He was particularly taken with the erotic Titian paintings Venus with Organist (for which he paid £165), and the Venus of El Pardo, for which he paid the enormous sum of £600. After hanging in Madrid and then in Whitehall, by 1650 Titian’s Venus found herself in the humbler surroundings of Colonel Hutchinson’s gallery on his Nottinghamshire estate in Owthorpe. The equestrian portrait of Charles was sold to an individual called Pope for £165. He in turn sold it to the London-based painter Remigius van Leemput, who took it to Antwerp to sell it for a higher price than London’s over-saturated buyer’s market could offer.
All across London, impromptu art galleries were established. In the working district of Austin Friars, in what is now Liverpool Street, the art dealer Emmanuel de Critz opened his house, offering an extraordinary range of paintings including works by Titian, Van Dyck, Bassano and Giulio Romano. He offered the two Correggio Allegories for sale at more than £1,000, as well as Bernini’s famous bust of King Charles, commissioned by the Pope in the 1630s in the vain hope of converting Charles to Catholicism. It stood in De Critz’s cramped rooms and was valued at £400. Nearby in Bethnal Green, Balthazar Gerbier showed off his newly acquired Titian, Portrait of Charles V with Hound.
Even Oliver Cromwell got in on the act. His advisers withdrew dozens of paintings, tapestries and statues from the sale to furnish the new Lord Protector’s apartments in Hampton Court. These included works that Charles had bought from Madrid, Mantua and the Low Countries, such as Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles (now held in the V&A) and Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, a fitting series of pictures to celebrate Cromwell as a conquering hero, and still held at Hampton Court.
However, the greatest beneficiaries from the sale were the Spanish and French ambassadors. The Spanish ambassador Don Alonso Cárdenas took advantage of the glut of paintings held by private individuals to pick off the best at a fraction of their original valuation. He spent £6,000 buying over 50 of the collection’s finest paintings. He bought Titian’s Portrait of Charles V with Hound for £200. Originally presented by King Philip IV to Prince Charles in 1623, and sold to Balthazar Gerbier for £150, by the late 1650s the painting was back in Madrid’s royal court.
Cárdenas also persuaded the king’s former embroiderer to part with Rubens’s Allegory of Peace and War for under £100, but his greatest coup was buying Raphael’s Holy Family. Valued at £2,000, CÃ¡rdenas bought the painting for just £1,000, praising it as ‘the best painting in the world’. Cárdenas’s French counterpart, Antoine de Bordeaux-Neufville also bought pictures by Van Dyck, Correggio and Caravaggio from private owners on the orders of his superior Cardinal Mazarin. As Bordeaux-Neufville competed with Cárdenas, the English owners played the two off against each other, and prices went through the roof. The unfortunate Bordeaux-Neufville was forced to pay an astronomical £7,000 for Colonel Hutchinson’s Venus of El Pardo.
Despite the exchange of such sums, the sale finally collapsed in 1654, amid public criticism and charges of corruption. Financially, the enterprise was a failure. Around 1,300 paintings, valued at £33,000, were sold or given away in lieu of debts. The sale raised just under £135,000, of which £26,500 went to the Navy, a drop in the ocean in comparison with the naval debt of £700,000. A small group of creditors with inside knowledge of the sale benefited, but many ordinary people who petitioned for relief were ignored or received virtually worthless goods. However, for the first time the sale had allowed people other than aristocrats and courtiers to buy, sell and evaluate art. It also created the conditions for an art market that would blossom with the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II in 1660.
The restoration of the monarchy brought severe embarrassment to those who still possessed any of the late king’s goods. Charles II issued a proclamation that set about reversing the sale, and which sanctioned the forcible repossession, without compensation, of the dead king’s possessions. Even those faithful royal servants given pictures to cover debts incurred by the monarchy were forced to return them. Embarrassed earls such as Northumberland and Peterborough, who had switched sides under the Commonwealth, sheepishly conceded that they seemed to have pictures that belonged to the new king’s dead father.
De Critz surrendered Bernini’s bust of Charles I, which went back into the Whitehall collection (although it sadly disappeared following a fire in 1698). Van Leemput returned from Antwerp, having failed to sell off the equestrian portrait of the king, which was repossessed by Charles II’s enforcers. However, the new king decided not to return it to its original location in St James’s Palace, hanging it instead in Hampton Court. He wanted to capitalise on his dead father’s legacy, but without being overshadowed. By the late 1660s, when the collection was inventoried, it contained over 1,100 pictures, which suggests that the collection lost fewer than 300 pictures — all of which found their way into national galleries across Europe, including the Prado and the Louvre.
Ultimately, the sale of King Charles I’s art collection was not the cultural catastrophe that many have assumed. There is no record of any destruction of paintings under the Commonwealth. On the contrary, the circulation of art among individuals who would otherwise have been denied access to it stimulated the nascent English art market that blossomed from the reign of King Charles II. It is estimated that between 1669 and 1692, more than 35,000 paintings went through London’s auction houses, including the painter Peter Lely’s collection of over 500 pictures, sold in 1680 for £26,000.
Despite some of the finest Titians, Raphaels and Caravaggios going abroad, the vast majority of Charles’s purchases remains to this day in the royal collection. Van Dycks, Holbeins, Tintorettos and Giulio Romanos all came back. Although some of the pictures can be seen in Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court and Windsor, many more are in store or out of the public eye in places like St James’s Palace and the private royal apartments, their fascinating history sadly unknown to a wider audience.
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