Reputations redeemed by art: two books examine what made Charles I and II great collectors but bad rulers

Despite the failings of the Stuart kings, their art collections stand in their favour, as exhibitions in the UK this year have shown

An indication that Charles II was his father’s son are these portraits of John More (around 1526-27) and William Reskimer (around 1532-34) by Hans Holbein the Younger.  Originally obtained by Henry VIII, they were sold by Charles I to finance his purchase of a Raphael, but were bought back by his son Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2018

An indication that Charles II was his father’s son are these portraits of John More (around 1526-27) and William Reskimer (around 1532-34) by Hans Holbein the Younger.  Originally obtained by Henry VIII, they were sold by Charles I to finance his purchase of a Raphael, but were bought back by his son Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2018

One of London’s biggest blockbuster exhibition of 2018 will doubtless prove to be the Royal Academy of Arts’ Charles I: King and Collector (27 January-15 April). Much has been written about the show, which gathered together more Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces than any display in recent years. Throughout the comments, moreover, there has been the reminder that Charles was not only the most successful collector the English monarchy has seen, but also the only one to be executed by his subjects. A repeated theme is whether these two aspects of his life can be connected.

It is true that one cause of Charles’s unpopularity was his extravagance. Like his father, James I, he found it difficult to live within a limited budget, and his attempts to raise taxes helped to multiply his enemies. But the fiscal was only one of many grievances, and by no means the fiercest. His religious policies, and above all his belief in the divine rights of his royal authority, set him on the path to civil war. This last trait, however, may provide the link between the connoisseurship and the rebellion.

A chapter by Guido Rebecchini in the show’s catalogue is devoted to Charles’s visit to Madrid in 1623. Its main purpose, to arrange a marriage to a Spanish princess, failed, but the trip had two effects with long-term consequences. First, as Rebecchini documents, Charles (possibly under the mentorship of his companion, the Duke of Buckingham) became an avid collector of fine paintings, buying two Titians, taking home a Velázquez and, in general, acquiring a taste he never lost. The other consequence, not mentioned here, was the prince’s experience of the unchallenged power of an absolutist king. Seeing Philip IV’s rule at close hand gave the future king a self-regard vis-à-vis his subjects that ultimately was to prove fatal. In other words, the trip to Madrid shaped, in different ways, both the collector and the martyr.

The story of Charles’s acquisitions, and the subsequent sale of his pictures by the Commonwealth government, is well known. More than 15 years ago, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid mounted an exhibition on this very theme, paying special attention to the Spanish connection; the show’s catalogue, Sale of the Century, emphasised both Charles’s purchase of the magnificent Gonzaga collection in 1628 and the loss that England suffered as a result of the sale that followed the king’s execution. Although the RA display was much richer, with nearly three times as many objects on view, it was but a sampling of the hundreds of works that Charles collected.

The publication is not a catalogue in the traditional sense. No attempt is made, for instance, to list Charles’s possessions, or to trace the provenance of the works that were sold. Rather, there are several brief essays—starting with a superb reconstruction of the Palace of Whitehall by Per Rumberg and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, indicating where the art was displayed—on a few major themes. To the extent that its nearly 200 sumptuous illustrations give a sense of the exhibition, the catalogue is a success. But its limited scope (shown, for example, in the absence of an investigation of the dispersal that followed) and the difficulties caused by the use of two sets of numbers for the figures (one for the book, one for the exhibition) make this a flawed if resonant memento of a dazzling show.

What we never learn, for instance, is how Van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt (around 1635) broke new ground in portraits of great men. Instead, we are treated to background information—especially about Rubens, Van Dyck, Mantegna and the Mortlake Tapestries—that, although helpful to anyone interested in the subject, is easily obtainable elsewhere. The one substantial break with this pattern is the attention given to Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, and the house she built at Greenwich. The queen was a Medici, and her taste for things Italian meshed well with her husband’s inclinations. Both the appointment of Inigo Jones to build her Italianate villa and its decoration (mainly by the Gentileschis, father and daughter) gave her a standing as a patroness of art that few queens of England have achieved. Erin Griffey’s comprehensive and erudite study of the queen (On Display: Henrietta Maria and the Materials of Magnificence at the Stuart Court, published in 2015) may be the foundation for the essay, but there is no denying the queen’s importance as a collector herself, and one must be grateful that the catalogue makes the point unmistakable.

A rather different path was followed by the couple’s oldest son, Charles II, and the catalogue for Art & Power, the exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery (8 December 2017-13 May) devoted to his collection, is equally distinct. This is a classic learned description of more than 200 items, meticulously documented and lavishly illustrated. Only two of the 11 sections deal with the paintings and drawings that preoccupied his father; the rest focus on such aspects of the king’s interests as ceremonies, architecture, libraries and the circulation of images. Charles II has not received anything like the credit he deserves as a patron of the arts. Much more careful to keep on the right side of his subjects than his father, he also did not have, in Lely, a court painter who could compare with Rubens or Van Dyck. The seated portrait by John Michael Wright, for example, may not find a place among the great royal portraits of the 17th century, but its huge size suggests (beyond the king’s ego) how serious and grand were Charles’s cultural concerns.

It is that seriousness, exemplified not just by the objects he commissioned or bought, but also by a broader engagement with the life of the mind, that gives the younger Charles considerable stature. He was, after all, a patron of England’s nascent scientific community, and also of the country’s most noted architect, Christopher Wren. Furthermore, as the enormous and detailed catalogue demonstrates, his tapestries and furnishings—not to mention his purchases of drawings by Holbein and Leonardo, as well as powerful Old Master paintings—marked him as a promoter of the arts. Whether this activity strengthened his hold on the crown, as is argued in the catalogue, is less clear, but its significance as a commitment to matters artistic and intellectual cannot be denied.

If the Stuarts, often regarded as one of the least effective of England’s royal dynasties, come out of this year’s exhibitions with their reputations enhanced, that is a reminder, yet again, of the importance of the arts.

Theodore K. Rabb is the Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton University. A specialist in Early Modern Europe, he is a frequent contributor to The Art Newspaper and the Times Literary Supplement. His book Why Does Michelangelo Matter? (2018) was reviewed in our June issue

  • Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Per Rumberg, eds, Charles I: King and Collector, Royal Academy Publications, 272pp, £40 (hb)
  • Rufus Bird and Martin Clayton, eds, Charles II: Art & Power, Royal Collection Trust, 464pp, £29.95 (hb)