Out and About: Charles I at Royal Academy

Jessica Juckes, International Training Programme Assistant

Last weekend, I went to see the new exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Charles I: King and Collector, which has been organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust.

King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland is known for having been a serious and almost unparalleled patron and collector of the arts. He was executed for treason in 1649, following the English Civil War, which led to a brief period as a republic: the Commonwealth of England. After his execution, the royal collection was auctioned off in the Commonwealth Sale (‘The Sale of the Late King’s Goods’) and dispersed throughout England and beyond. Many works were returned to the royal collection when the monarchy was restored eleven years later. However, a good number of works were sold abroad, particularly to the Spanish and French courts, and others remained in various public and private collections.

The Royal Academy’s exhibition boasts an incredibly impressive and ambitious loans project, reuniting many of the artworks collected by Charles I for the first time since the 17th century. Items on display consist of paintings, tapestries, sculptures, sketches, miniatures, limnings and medals, with works by artists including Van Dyck, Tintoretto, Daniel Mytens, Albrecht Durer, Rubens, Guido Reni, Orazio Gentileschi, Hans Holbein the Younger and more.

Aside from the Royal Collection, which has loaned many items, UK loan institutions include:
British Museum (including Van Dyck’s sketch book), National Gallery, National Trust, National Gallery of Scotland, National Portrait Gallery, V&A, Tate, Bodleian Library at Oxford University (original working draft inventory of Charles’ collection) and Longford Castle in Salisbury.

European and American loan institutions include:
Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Mauritshuis in The Hague, Mobilier National and the Louvre in Paris, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Meadows Museum in Dallas and J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Charles I at the Hunt

Charles I at the Hunt, Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1635

Charles I’s inventory, plus the documents produced for the Commonwealth Sale, mean that the curators have been able to piece together fascinating insights as to the journey of each artwork on show. Labels include information on where each piece was displayed prior to Charles I’s execution (venues including Whitehall Palace, Somerset House, St James’s Palace and Hampton Court Palace). It is brought to our attention that a certain painting was hung in the King’s bedchamber and therefore must have held particular significance for him. They also provide details on whether the piece was sold in the Commonwealth Sale and if so, who purchased it and how much they spent. They even offer speculation as to why some paintings don’t appear in the inventories of the Commonwealth Sale, for example Charles I at the Hunt (now part of the Louvre’s collection). The exhibition suggests that it is possible that his Queen, Henrietta Maria, took this with her to France when she went into exile in 1644.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Cristofano Allori, 1613

Something else refreshing: a room of the exhibition is dedicated to the Queen’s House, looking at the role of Charles’ Queen Consort, Henrietta Maria of France, in the patronage (or ‘matronage’) of the arts. The introductory panel, as entering the exhibition, informs us that the most important protagonist among the artists, agents, courtiers and collectors involved in Charles I’s story, was his wife, ‘whose role in shaping the collection has only recently received the attention it deserves.’ Henrietta Maria’s main residence was Somerset House, and she also took over the completion of the Queen’s House in Greenwich, created for her predecessor but still unfinished. She acquired numerous works by Orazio Gentileschi which are on show in the exhibition, Guido Reni and others. There is a fantastic portrait by Cristofano Allori of another strong woman, Judith – having just beheaded Holofernes.

Artemisia Self Portrait

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638-9

Apparently, the Royal Collection’s self-portrait by female Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi – also collected and commissioned by Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and whose father’s works we see in this room – is somewhere in the exhibition, but I didn’t find it! I may need to return…

Something perhaps surprising is that the unrest during Charles I’s reign, and the ensuing civil war, get little mention. In my school history lessons, it was suggested that Charles’ perhaps excessive spending on the arts played a part in his downfall – an obsession with aesthetics, frivolousness and power that was badly received by parliament and the working public. As such, I can’t help but have mixed feelings while admiring this amazing collection.

Read more about the exhibition in a press round-up from the Art Newspaper here.