Researching Early Modern History

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Stuart Art and Diplomacy, RBE 17 – T.D. Jacobs

I visited London this week to carry out research into the Cherokee embassy of 1730 using the database of eighteenth-century news papers available via the British Library. While in London, I decided to visit the exhibitions covered by my colleague, Fien Lauwaerts, in their last blog. 

There were beautiful pieces at the Charles II exhibition (some of the rarely displayed da Vinci sketches from Thomas Howard’s collection, or the fascinating Riley portrait of Bridget Holmes – James II’s ‘Necessary Woman,’ for example), but those at the exhibition on his father’s collection, “King and Collector” were displayed to better effect. The pieces were less crowded together, and the exhibition halls were better suited to the numbers of people crowding in to see them. Moreover, the catalogue was available in soft cover, and thus was much more reasonably priced. 

Which brings me to an interesting facet of the “King and Collector” exhibition: where possible, they included the  original location of the artwork, as well as the price that the piece fetched at the ‘Sale of the King’s Goods’ at the start of the Interregnum. For example, the ‘Three Soldiers’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder fetched all of 5£. Unfortunately, nowhere in the printed sections on display was any information given regarding just how much money that was in the seventeenth century. 

Opinions appear to have varied in that regard. Lodewijck Huygens noted in his journal, kept during his time a member of the initial Dutch embassy to the newly minted English Republic, that they had visited the salesrooms at Somerset House. He wrote that there were many damaged statues, and paintings “but all so badly cared for and so dusty that it was a pitiable sight.” And that “Five or six Titians, however, surpassed everything else there, and yet these also could be purchased at a very reasonable price. All these goods, brought together from several of the King’s houses, had been given in payment to some creditors of the late Sovereign, who did their best now to get rid of them.” The envoy from Sweden, however, “complained that everything was overpriced.” 

Not overpriced enough – nor dusty enough – to keep the royal family from re-aquiring them, however. And it seems that the following dynasty valued and displayed them as well. For example, while looking for Georgian correspondence today, I stumbled across the “Catalogue of his Royal Highness ye Prince of Wales’s Pictures in Leicester House,” made in 1749, and it appears to list many paintings from Charles I’s original collection – some of which I saw this week.

Lodewijk Huygens, 20.1.1652 (ns), in  The English Journal, 1651-1652. A.G.H. Bachrach and R.G. Collmer, eds. trans. Brill and Leiden University Press, Leiden, 1982.

Royal Archives, GEO/ADD/I/54, “A Catalogue of his Royal Highness ye Prince of Wales’s Pictures in Leicester House.” Available at Georgian Papers Online.

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