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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