The life of Charles I: King, collector, tastemaker, traitor

The long read

Published 21 November 2017

Political turmoil in 17th-century Europe threw up exciting pickings for Charles I’s art collection. But after a civil war that led to his execution, his masterpieces were dispersed across the globe. Here, Jenny Uglow introduces our show finally reuniting the king’s treasures.

  • From the Winter 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In 1630, Peter Paul Rubens said goodbye to London after a diplomatic mission. Before he left he started work on his Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-35), a keepsake, in honour of England. Fields and woods slope down to a river, an idyllic pastoral with many features of the view from York House, where Rubens had been lodging. In the centre the saint, clearly modelled on Charles I, stands with his foot on the dragon and hands a chain to the Princess to lead it away. Rubens took the painting home to Antwerp but about four years later Endymion Porter, ambassador to the Netherlands, bought it for the King to add to his extraordinary art collection at Whitehall. By then Rubens had added strips of canvas to the picture showing the grisly remains of the dragon’s victims and the standard of St George, the flag of England. This was no grand image of a martial ruler, but a vision of a bringer of peace – a bitter irony in view of the Civil War that would ensue.

    Charles I knew that paintings could speak. They could declare a monarch’s power, his regal authority and domestic virtue, his role as protector of the nation. The very possession of art by great masters added to a ruler’s status. Charles’s ferociously competitive collecting sprang as much from a determination to rival the great powers of Europe as from the private passion of a connoisseur. Ceremonies were delayed and dinners cooled as he showed visiting dignitaries proudly round Whitehall. The Privy Gallery with its gloomy formal portraits of European royalty, many of them related to the Stuarts, formed a harsh contrast to the Long Gallery, facing the orchard, with its startling array of Italian and Northern paintings. The so-called Bear Gallery featured works like Titian’s mighty portrait of Charles V with a Dog (1533) and Rubens’s Daniel in the Lions’ Den (c.1614-16). The most exciting pictures, however, were on display in the King’s private apartments, the Privy Lodging Rooms: many of them pagan, alluring and specific, by Titian, Correggio, Giorgione and others. In the heart of the labyrinth came the Cabinet Room, Charles’s inner sanctum. Redesigned in the mid-1630s, the Cabinet Room held 80 paintings, 36 statues and statuettes, as well as bas-reliefs, miniatures, books, engravings, drawings, medals and precious objects.

  • The collection’s grandeur is conveyed by a landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy that reunites many of these masterpieces for the first time. Where had this bounty come from? And at what cost? Tudor monarchs, with the brief exception of Mary, had been wary of Catholic Europe and its culture, but Charles’s father, James I, changed this policy, and his eldest son Henry surrounded himself with scholars, artists and musicians, and had acquired paintings from Holland and from Florence. On Henry’s death in 1612 his collection passed to his mother, Anne of Denmark, who became a keen patron of painters, dramatists and architects as well as court masques, and filled her rooms at Somerset House and Oatlands Palace with religious pictures, still-lifes, landscapes and allegorical scenes.

    The studious Charles, then heir to the throne, seemed unlikely to match the stylish Henry, but slowly he became the centre of a circle of aristocrats competing to build their own collections. In 1613 the most influential of them, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, set off for Italy with his wife Aletheia and the architect Inigo Jones. In Italy they marvelled at the paintings of Venice, Rome and Mantua, and at the Palladian villas of Vicenza, and in 1619 Jones designed the new Banqueting House in Whitehall in the Palladian style. Two years later, Rubens was approached to paint its nine ceiling panels, but it was not until 1634, nine years after James’s death, that the panels were completed. Beneath swirling baroque images of his father uniting the nation, banishing evil and rewarding good, and rising into heaven, Charles, as king, sat in state.

    • His mother’s blessing was crucial too. The 19-year-old Charles inherited Anne’s collection when she died in 1619. He began taking advice from his father’s young favourite, the handsome George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, whose palace in the Strand would eventually boast over 300 paintings by artists including Rubens, Titian, Tintoretto and Bassano. Buckingham gave Charles confidence, and in 1623 they set out together on a hair-raising dash to Madrid, wearing false beards and travelling as “Jack and Tom Smith”. Their aim was to cut through the tangled negotiations for Charles’s marriage to the Infanta Maria, sister of Philip IV, but after their surprise arrival, which upset all the elaborate rules of Spanish protocol, matters moved as slowly as ever. Charles did not care: Madrid was his first encounter with the feverish European passion for art, and he was entranced by the glories of the Escorial and the vast Habsburg collection. Above all, he fell in love with Titian, who had served the Habsburgs, sending paintings from Venice. Titian’s portraits, especially those of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, proclaimed him the supreme painter of power. At this stage, however, Charles was equally carried away by his erotic charge. Thrilled, he began buying on the open art market, something no monarch had done before, making prices rocket. His purchases included Titian’s Young Woman with a Fur Coat (1535), the dark fur and dull gold glowing against the model’s pale breast. At the same time he eagerly accepted gifts from the Spanish crown, including two equally sensual paintings, Titian’s so-called Pardo Venus (1552), and Veronese’s Mars, Venus and Cupid (c.1580).

      Paolo Veronese, Mars, Venus and Cupid

      Paolo Veronese, Mars, Venus and Cupid, c.1580.

      National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh. Purchased by the Royal Institution 1859; transferred to the National Gallery of Scotland 1867. Photo: Antonia Reeve © National Galleries of Scotland.

  • He was well aware of the high status of the Italian masters. Before the Madrid venture, he had ordered the purchase from Genoa of Raphael’s cartoons of the Acts of the Apostles (c.1515-16). Pope Leo X had originally commissioned these in 1515 as patterns for tapestries that he sent to several monarchs, a subtle way of stressing his divine authority, and Charles now wanted them for the weavers of the Mortlake Tapestry Factory, which had been founded by James I in 1619. Perhaps he hoped the resulting tapestries would impress his Spanish bride. If so, this was a false dream, as the Spanish marriage was called off, to the relief of many British Protestants. And when he left Madrid, he also left behind another potential treasure, his portrait by the young Diego Velázquez, newly arrived as court painter.

    The Spanish trip drained the English budget and ruffled national feelings. By the time James I died in March 1625 and Charles became King, Britain had swung towards war with Spain. Needing a French alliance, Charles married the 15-year-old French princess, Henrietta Maria. At the same time, he embarked on his most famous purchase, the fabulous collection of the Gonzaga dynasty of Mantua. Charles had sent Nicolas Lanier, his Master of Music and a known connoisseur, to buy paintings in Italy, and in Venice the Flemish merchant and dealer Daniel Nijs tipped him off about the prospects in Mantua. Lanier was thrilled by what he saw there. The Gonzaga hoard included classical and modern sculptures, as well as Titian’s paintings of Roman emperors; Correggio’s Venus with Mercury and Cupid (“The School of Love”), of c.1525, his tender Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (c.1525) and his two allegories of Vice and Virtue, from 1528-30; and Northern paintings including Jan van Eyck’s exquisite, small triptych, Virgin and Child with St Michael, St Catherine and a Donor (1437). Negotiations stumbled on for two years, and in 1628 the deaths of successive dukes and the pressure of debts finally persuaded the Gonzagas to relinquish their greatest treasure, the nine canvases of Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar (c.1484-92), with its powerful ceremonial scenes of elephants and trumpeters, chariots and crowds. But it took until 1630 for the Triumph to arrive and two more years for the King to pay his bill.

  • The spectacular Gonzaga purchase crowned Charles as a discerning connoisseur and spread ripples of envy across Europe. There was less admiration, however, at home. At the same time as the King was spending a fortune on art, he was imposing a Forced Loan on corporations and citizens and asking Parliament to pay to fund the Duke of Buckingham’s disastrous siege of the Ile de Ré. Buckingham was hated and derided as spoilt and incompetent. On 23 August 1628, soon after the first tranche of Gonzaga works reached England – many of them damaged on the voyage by a spilt cargo of mercury – he was assassinated in Portsmouth.

    Without his beloved friend, Charles strode stubbornly on, as King and as collector. He did not buy directly but depended on intermediaries – courtiers, ambassadors, dealers and agents – who spotted works that might appeal, undertook negotiations, and arranged shipping and made the payments. In this he followed the pattern set by Arundel, who employed the knowledgeable William Petty, and by Buckingham, who used Balthasar Gerbier, a cunning dealer with a good eye and few ethics. The whole process of buying and moving art was fraught with difficulty and the go-betweens and financiers often waited years to be repaid, but many treasures could be hunted down on the Continent as fortunes collapsed during the turmoil of the Thirty Years War.

    The King’s main interest was Italian Renaissance art. His walls were packed with canvases attributed to Titian, Tintoretto and Correggio, as well as Leonardo and, most importantly, Raphael, including his Virgin and Child with St Anne and the Infant St John the Baptist (later known as La Perla, c.1518). By contrast the Northern Renaissance left Charles cold, or at most lukewarm, although he owned fine works by Gossaert and Cranach, as well as some by Arundel’s heroes, Holbein and Dürer. Luckily, his indifference was countered by the enthusiasm of Henrietta Maria, whose personal collection included many Northern works, including Holbein’s “Noli me tangere” (1526-28), a wonderfully intense encounter, as Mary Magdalene wards off the man she mistakes for the gardener while the shining angels crouch within the empty tomb. The Queen also helped to introduce a very different style, the Italian High-Baroque, encouraged by her close relationship with Cardinal Barberini and the papal court, fuelling the distrust of the King’s Puritan opponents, who feared Charles’s seduction by gifts of art from Rome. For her bedroom at the new Queen’s House in Greenwich, Henrietta Maria took Barberini’s advice in commissioning Guido Reni’s openly sexual painting of Bacchus and Ariadne, a work almost too scandalous to be displayed.

  • While Charles hunted down Old Masters he also pursued living artists, especially to paint portraits. In 1625 the Dutch painter Daniel Mytens arrived at court, bringing a naturalistic style that seemed novel and fresh in contrast to the stiff Tudor portraits. In the same year, in Paris, Buckingham recruited the sculptor Hubert Le Sueur, who made fine bronze statues of the King and cast antique sculptures from moulds sent from Rome. Another arrival, the elderly Italian Orazio Gentileschi, painted particularly for Henrietta Maria, while his daughter Artemisia also contributed several works to the royal collection, including her striking Allegory of Painting (c.1638-39). The star artist, however, was Rubens’s pupil, Anthony van Dyck, appointed in 1632 as “principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties”. As soon as he arrived for his second visit to London, Charles knighted him and subsequently gave him a pension of £200 – sweeteners to persuade him to stay – and both he and the Queen paid personal visits to the artist’s riverside studio in Blackfriars. Van Dyck would define the image of the Caroline court. Having spent years in Italy and profoundly influenced by Titian, he began his tenure with The Greate Peece (1632), a huge family portrait showing Charles as father of the family, and father of the nation, with his crown on the table, his two-year-old son Charles at his knee, and his wife Henrietta opposite, holding Princess Mary. This painting, and the later, wonderfully informal portrait of the King’s children (The Five Eldest Children of Charles I, 1637) are alive with a play of light and colour.

  • In all, Van Dyck painted about 40 portraits of Charles, often copied and sent as gifts to foreign courts or to loyal supporters. His triple portrait of the King (1635-36), full face, three-quarters and in profile, was sent to Rome for Bernini to model his bust. Van Dyck knew how to flatter, how to suggest shimmering romance or statuesque dignity. He could, and did, create an icon. His equestrian portraits made the 5ft 4in Charles seem tall and athletic. The Louvre has lent to the RA exhibition Charles I in the Hunting Field, from c.1635, a superb portrayal of the King as hunter, elegant and at ease in his shimmering silver doublet, with his favourite courtier Endymion Porter holding his horse. Nearby at the RA hangs the National Gallery’s great Charles I on Horseback (c.1637-38) – its pose echoing Titian’s portrait of Charles V in the Prado – alongside its preparatory oil sketch from the Royal Collection. The same gallery also displays the Royal Collection’s mighty Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633), which, when it was placed at the end of the King’s Gallery at St James’s Palace, had been designed to draw a gasp of awe. In the painting, light floods through the arch onto the King’s armour and glints off his Garter ribbon, bearing a portrait of the Queen. Baton of state in his hand, he gazes steadily out, his head framed against the stormy sky.

  • Those painted storms proved all too real. In 1642 Charles would raise his standard at Edgehill, in the first battle of the Civil War. Seven years later he was executed on a platform outside the Banqueting House where Rubens’ scenes of royal glory shone on the ceiling. In June 1649, Parliament passed an Act for the Sale of the King’s Goods. Teams of trustees scurried through the royal palaces, noting down beds and chairs, pots and pans, tapestries and sculptures and paintings. Cromwell kept a few paintings for the state, including the martial Mantegnas, but many were sold quickly to raise funds for the Navy. In a second phase, most of the remainder were handed over to repay large outstanding royal debts, and in a third stage the smaller debts were paid. Works by Tintoretto, Titian and Van Dyck, never before seen by the general public, were now stacked in the houses of glaziers and plumbers, vintners and tailors. Dealers and merchants made fast money. Quickly, the Spanish ambassador De Cárdenas whisked priceless works out of the country: later the French ambassador Bordeaux swooped down in his turn.

    At the Restoration in 1660, even before Charles II landed in Britain, a committee began work on “the Discovery and Restoring of the King’s Goods”. They could not get back the paintings and statues that had gone abroad but officials and noblemen anxious to gain the new King’s goodwill were quick to hand things back, and a team of repossession men scoured the land. This quest is the background to a concurrent show at the Queen’s Gallery, Charles II: Art and Power. The returned works, with those of Henrietta Maria that she took with her to France, formed the core of the future Royal Collection. But Rubens’ Landscape with St George and the Dragon did not return until George IV bought it from the Orleans collection in 1814. His English idyll had proved a prophecy of war. Charles I, though a great collector, was no St George: the dragon of Puritanism and the people could never be subdued, or led quietly away on a golden chain.

    • John Constable, R.A., Rainstorm over the Sea

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