Since I wrote my master’s thesis about the first decades of the Restoration, I am very interested in the Stuart dynasty. That is why I went to London in February to visit two ongoing exhibitions Charles I: King and Collector and Charles II: Art & Power. Both exhibitions contained a series of astounding art works.
Charles I: King and Collector at the Royal Academy is an especially unique exhibition, since it reunites several works that belonged to the art collection of King Charles I. Charles I was an art connoisseur and amassed an extraordinary collection during his lifetime. It contained classical and renaissance art – both from the North and South – and works by the greatest contemporary artists, such as Rubens and Van Dyck. After his execution in 1649, his enormous collection was sold off to pay the Crown’s debts. The sale attracted a great deal of attention from art collectors across Europe, and as a consequence the collection was dispersed across the continent. Charles II tried to reassemble his father’s art collection after the Restoration in 1660, and although he succeeded in rebuying some artworks, several remained in foreign collections. Consequently, one of the greatest achievements of this exhibition lays in reuniting these scattered artworks. They are of an astounding quality and beauty and it was one of the most amazing exhibitions I have ever seen. Seeing the works of Van Dyck, Rubens, Velazquez, Titian and Holbein (to name but a few) in one place astounded me. The exhibition really succeeded in bringing the art collection, and the figure of Charles I in particular, back to life. The ‘family room’ with portraits by Van Dyck is the ultimate example of this, showing the viewers a sensitive king. On the whole, I can do nothing but heartily recommend that anyone with an interest in art or the Stuarts to go to the Royal Academy.
Anthony Van Dyck, Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Mary
The following day, I visited Charles II: Art and Power in the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. It tells the story of how Charles II came to the throne and grants us some insight into his court, which became the center of patronage of the arts. Art is a central theme in this exhibition, which demonstrates that it was more than mere decoration, serving also as propaganda for the Restored monarchy. The story is largely told through paintings, although there are some engravings, prints and objects as well. The exhibition contains some beautiful examples of Stuart propaganda, such as the impressive coronation portrait of Charles II by John Michael Wright. There are also several portraits of Charles’ courtiers, including some of his mistresses. The exhibition also ties neatly into the one about Charles I by including a small room with paintings from his father’s collection that Charles II managed to rebuy after his coronation. One particularly interesting piece is ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which actually depicts the slaughter of children by Habsburg soldiers during the Dutch Revolt. The painting ended up in the possession of the Habsburg emperor Rudolf, who ordered one of his own painters to censor it by painting over the mutilated children. However, as you can see below, the oil paint has become translucent, causing the children to become visible again underneath the supplies and animals which covered them. You can see it in the center of the painting underneath the woman in red sitting in the snow.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents
I regret that these wonderful works of art aren’t always available to the public. A substantial number reside in the Royal Collection. It would be nice to have this collection – or at least a part of it – on permanent display in a ‘Royal Museum’ of some sorts.
Charles I: King and Collector (Royal Academy. 27 January 2018 – 15 May 2018) https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/charles-i-king-and-collector
Charles II: Art & Power (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 8 December 2017 – 13 May 2018) https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/charles-ii-art-power/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace