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Charles I: King and Collector - Exhibition Review

Charles I is having a moment. With the current exhibition Charles I: King and Collector running at the Royal Academy in London coupled with Leanda de Lisles’ new book White King – Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr a much overdue reappraisal of one of most maligned monarchs is now underway.

It’s quite hard now to picture the world in which Charles I and his court lived. Tiny fragments survive in London such as the Banqueting House in Whitehall, the Queen’s House at Greenwich, the Water Gate to York House on the Embankment and, further afield, at Lodge Park in Gloucestershire and the Double Cube Room by Inigo Jones at Wilton House in Wiltshire.

The Double Cube Room at Wilton House, Wiltshire

One of the most tantalising subjects of the Civil War Era is the legendary picture collection amassed by Charles I through a combination of patronage, inheritance and acquisition. Dispersed via a major sale during the Cromwellian Protectorate it was partially reconvened at the Restoration of the Monarchy but works of art still ended up in such far-flung locations as Paris, the Hague, New York and, rather wonderfully, in the collection of the Archbishopric of Olomouc in the Czech Republic. Until now the only real way to reconstruct the collection has been mentally with the aid of books such as Jerry Broton’s The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and his art collection. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to see a significant portion of this highly important collection reassembled.

It is thought that Charles I developed a taste for fine art of the highest quality during his prolonged stay in Madrid with the Duke of Buckingham during their disastrous attempt to secure the “Spanish Match” and it was here that he purchased the several high-quality Titians that light up the early rooms of the exhibition.

He added to this with the purchase of the Gonzaga collection from their palace in Mantua, the pinnacle of which, and for me one of the high points of the exhibition, is the Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna. The last time I saw this work it was tucked away in a gloomy corner of Hampton Court Palace so to see it in the well-lit and size appropriate galleries of the Royal Academy really show it off to its best. It exudes a sense of splendour and even perhaps a sense of Republican grandeur. Perhaps this was why Oliver Cromwell had it installed in his personal apartments during the Protectorate.

Section from the Triumph of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna

The other real glory of the exhibition is the chance to see such a large sample of the works commissioned from Anthony Van Dyck (and others) that document both the self-image of Charles I and his growing brood of children. The Central Hall containing the three large Van Dycks of Charles from the Royal Collection, the National Gallery and, back in England for the first time since it left with Henrietta Maria, the Louvre is a real take-your-breath away moment. Another clever juxtaposition is that of the famous Van Dyck Triple Portrait of Charles with a copy of the Bernini Bust that was executed from it.

In conclusion this exhibition has much to enthral and engage anyone with an interest in the Civil War Era. Highly recommended.

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