Charles I art on display in 2018

It has been announced today that the Royal Academy (in partnership with the Royal Collection) is planning to mark its 250th anniversary in 2018 with an exhibition of paintings that were formerly in the art collection of King Charles I. Today I’m so stupidly excited about this I can barely type! I heard a rumour some time ago that such an exhibition was in planning, but then all went quiet and I thought it had been shelved. The sheer logistics of this particular undertaking are eye-watering, to say the least, and if they can pull it off it could well be one of the most remarkable shows in recent years.

As readers may know (and I’ve talked about this before), Charles was a prolific collector of art, and had his agents scour Europe to buy the very best paintings available, often scooping them from under the noses of other monarchs or wealthy nobility. By the time of his death, the quality and scale of his collection is said to have been one of the greatest in Europe, rendering what happened afterwards a painful and, to some eyes,  unforgiveable act of cultural vandalism. Following the fall of the Royalist cause, and the flight of surviving royals and retainers into exile, Oliver Cromwell’s parliament decided to sell the late King’s goods, including his extensive art collection,  to pay off Charles’s debts. Palaces, apartments and other royal buildings were opened up, their contents catalogued, and for the first time in British history, a monarch’s possessions were flogged to the public. From the insignificant and ordinary to the grand and priceless, everything went on sale (except for some religious-themed paintings that were considered blasphemous, torn to pieces and thrown into the Thames).

Much went abroad, and can be seen today in some of the most famous art galleries in the world, including the Louvre in Paris, and the Prado in Madrid. Charles II was able to reclaim (either with money, or with his own special brand of ‘gentle persuasion’) a large number of canvases, which now form part of the Royal Collection. Over hundreds of years, other  works will have been lost, destroyed by fire, war, or some other unfortunate mishap. Some survivors will have fallen from view entirely, their presence in the collection forgotten, waiting for their true provenance to be uncovered.

This is the task faced by the Royal Academy as they put together their exhibition. Known works in British galleries, including the Royal Collection, will be loaned,  while galleries abroad may be likewise persuaded to send their paintings back to London for the show. Still more must be hunted down through old inventories and centuries-old documents, in hopes of uncovering those that have gone astray.

The end result will be astonishing. The reconstruction, as far as is possible, of a royal art collection that was dispersed over 350 years ago. Masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck and Mantega will be seen together for the first time since the mid-1600s. It will surely be a once-in-a-lifetime event, as I can’t foresee this kind of reunion ever happening again, so if you can get to the Royal Academy between January and April 2018, this is one exhibition you cannot miss!

charles-i-equestrian

Here are the full details of the exhibition: Theartnewspaper.com

Further reading: “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods” by Jerry Brotton (2006), pub. Pan MacMillian.

On This Day…..

I couldn’t let today pass without marking the 370th anniversary of the passing of William Dobson.  On 28th October 1646, the King’s former court painter, now returned home from Oxford following the defeat of Charles and his royalist supporters,  was buried at his home church of St Martin in the Fields, London. He was just 36 (or 35, depending on which calendar you use).

William Dobson

It’s quite fitting that the likely place of his burial is almost certainly within sight of the National Portrait Gallery, where some of his works now hang. The church has changed, and the St Martin’s Lane he lived on altered far beyond his recognition, but head up to Room 5 of the NPG and you’ll find some wonderful works by one of the Lane’s most talented residents. I wonder what he would have thought to see his own paintings on the walls of a national institution, so close to his home, alongside those of the great Van Dyck, and portraits of the King who undoubtedly changed the direction of his life.

I hope he’d be pleased!

The Collectors

The 17th century  is notable not only for showcasing some of the most famous painters and paintings we are familiar with today, but also for the way in which the purpose and value of art was changing. Where art was once created for purely religious purposes, commissioned as family heirlooms, or used to make a statement of one’s wealth or influence, during the 1600s the practice of gathering the best works for prestige or personal connoisseurship created some of the greatest art collections in history.

Across Europe the battle was on to secure the most valuable pieces by  giants such as Titian and Raphael whenever a ruling family went bankrupt, lost their estate through war, or simply died, leaving their collections ‘up for grabs’. One of the most successful and notorious of these opportunists was King Charles I himself, who despite his other, less successful traits, had an excellent eye for art, and had his agents travel the continent scooping up the best to be had, often under the noses of other royal families or wealthy enthusiasts who were hot on his heels. Charles’s art collection – today considered to have been one of the most remarkable gatherings of western art to date – was sold off by Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth after the king’s death.

Another famous English collector was the courtier Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, painted here by Peter Paul Rubens in 1629/1630. Arundel spent many years touring Europe, negotiating and corresponding with agents and advisers in order to purchase the very best on offer. At his death, he left behind several hundred paintings, in addition to sculptures, drawings, prints and jewellery.

arundel
©National Gallery, London

Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke, also amassed an impressive art collection of over 100 paintings, including more than 20 by Van Dyck, for whom he sat in around 1634.

pembroke
Philip Herbert by Van Dyck, ©National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Others with smaller but no less impressive collections included the ill-fated Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who had works by Van Dyck, Mytens and Honthorst, and James, 1st Duke of Hamilton, who was particularly fond of Venetian paintings. These accounted for over half of his collection of 600+ works when inventoried in early 1643.

If you’re interested in the adventures and travels of the collectors and their prized possessions, I’d  really recommend a read of “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods” by Jerry Brotton, which describes the European art scene in the 17th century, and the fate of King Charles’s famed collection after his death. (Spoiler: Charles II managed to buy much of it back, where it now hangs in the Royal Collection. Phew!)

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