An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s Royal Academy
One of the most telling curatorial notes in this excellent show, ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ at London’s Royal Academy, is attached to Orazio Gentileschi’s Head of a Woman (1630-35). In itself, though beautiful, the painting is far from the most arresting piece on display; tucked unobtrusively into a corner of the gallery, it is somewhat drowned out by three of Gentileschi’s larger, brasher biblical scenes. But the note makes it come to life. As with a number of the paintings here, court records make it possible to know where Head of a Woman hung in the royal collections – not just which palace or house, but occasionally which room, too. The biblical scenes with their heftig bodies and dramatic gestures are public paintings through and through, and hung as such, in the Great Hall of the Queen’s House at Greenwich. Head of a Woman, meanwhile, feels immediately like a private pleasure, and the records back the intuition up. Small, direct, tantalizingly bare-shouldered this image of a woman was hung, the blurb remarks, in the ‘Little Room between the Breakfast Chamber and the Privy Gallery’.
It is notoriously hard to disentangle public and private in royal aesthetics: despite the specialty of his person, not much was private for a king. Even in his privy chambers Charles I was on display to courtiers, counsellors and servants. And the same went for his art. Part of the indispensable equipment of kingship, it too was always on display, as much for others’ consumption as for the king’s. But that ‘Little Room between’ does feel private: the sense of domesticity, however palatial, conjured by an intimate, liminal space between two other semi-private spaces. It is hard not to imagine Charles the collector passing through after breakfast, pausing to enjoy his possessions, and living up to Peter Paul Rubens’s description of him as ‘the greatest lover of painting among the princes of the world’.
This kind of insight is everywhere in ‘King and Collector’, which neatly and carefully plots the double nature of Charles I’s collecting by gathering 140 paintings, sculptures and tapestries from his collection. Most have not hung in the same space since 1649, when, after the King’s execution, Cromwell’s government sold off the king’s horde in the ‘Commonwealth Sale’. Though partially reassembled during the Restoration, much of the collection remains scattered through museums around the world, and bringing the works back together makes a sense of Charles’ tastes and habits emerge as never before.
Pass by Head of a Woman, and you come to the most private end of the spectrum: a room containing works from the ‘Whitehall Cabinet’. This room was specifically designed, as a contemporary observer remarked, for Charles to pore over his most treasured pieces ‘in the secresie of a retired and more solitary place’. The pieces gathered here – just a small fraction of the original contents – include portraits by Quentin Massys and Holbein, drawings and etchings, and the exquisite Tudor miniatures of Nicholas Hillyard, as well as bronzes and medals. Many of these, as Vanessa Remington and Lucy Whitaker note in their informative catalogue essay, were inherited by Charles from his older brother Henry, but the king clearly treasured them personally – having the Cabinet specially constructed for them in the heart of his Whitehall apartments. And, as the inventory’s list of four magnifying ‘crystals’ makes clear, he liked to look at his collections as closely he kept them.
At the other end of the spectrum are some of the most impressive pieces of courtly display art ever made: Anthony van Dyck’s equestrian portraits of Charles. Two, showing Charles in full armour, reach to nearly three metres high and are designed to display a king as much in charge of his nation as of his horse. It says something of their brilliance that the king’s rheumy eyes and the historical irony do little to undercut the effect. In Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633), the image of majesty in action is particularly domineering: the king on his white charger, high-stepping through an archway from a cloudy landscape into a royal interior, admiringly looked up to by his equerry. Charles could not be said to have the natural face of authority or might, but he could hardly have had a greater court painter for making him seem the image of an anointed king. Display, though, can only do so much against an unhappy polity.
With or without the history attached, this exhibition is brilliantly and unobtrusively curated to put the art at the centre. Wisely, the curators Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor chose to leave the thick description, for the most part, to the scholarly and informative catalogue, giving just enough context on the gallery walls for the pictures to speak for themselves. And they do, such that anything else would be hard to take in. The pieces gathered in the galleries include some of the most superb old master paintings in the world – from Albrecht Dürer and van Dyck, through to Rubens, Titian, Hans Holbein, and Quintin Massys. It would be invidious to pick highlights. The nine vast canvases of Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar (1485-1506) alone – endless in their detailing of imperial military bric-a-brac – could form the basis for an entire show.
If this feels at times like a surfeit of pleasures, it is worth remembering that King and Collector gathers less than a tenth of the royal collection at the time of Charles’ death. I find that mind-boggling. Small wonder, perhaps, that some of Charles’ subjects felt the king was interested more in himself than his people.
‘Charles I: King and Collector’ is on view at the Royal Academy, London, UK, until 15 April 2018.
Main image: Anthony van Dyck, Charles I in Three Positions (detail), 1635–36, oil on canvas, 84 x 99 cm. Courtesy: Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018