The Royal Academy presents a new exhibition entitled Charles I: King and Collector which reunites some of the greatest masterpieces of the king’s collection for the first time. The exhibition features over 100 works of art including classical sculptures, Baroque paintings, remarkable miniatures and monumental tapestries.
The theme of the exhibition is how the political turmoil in 17th-century Europe provided opportunities to collect masterpieces from private collections and Charles I in particular, built his art collection by using these methods.
The exhibition explores how the king’s collection was used to illustrate a monarch’s power, his authority and good taste in the arts. Many of the great powers of Europe had built up great collections of art and had commissioned some of the great artists of the period to work for them. It was not just the competition from abroad that inspired the king to build up his collection, he was surrounded by aristocrats in his court most notably his friend, the Duke of Buckingham who were building their own collections.
When Charles reached nineteen, he inherited Queen Anne’s art collection when she died in 1619. He then travelled to Spain with the Duke of Buckingham and began to explore some of the great European collections. Titian in particular was a favourite as were many of the Italian masters and he returned to England with a number of works including paintings by Titian, Correggio and Veronese.
The exhibition features Titian’s The Supper at Emmaus and Veronese’s Mars, Venus and Cupid.
When Charles became King in 1625, he sent Nicolas Lanier to buy paintings in Italy, whilst in Venice, Lanier was told that one of the great collections in Europe may be for sale. The Gonzaga’s in Mantua had fallen on hard times and in 1628 they were persuaded to sell their famous collection. The Gonzaga hoard included classical and modern sculptures, paintings by Titian, Correggio and Jan van Eyck. It also included the nine large canvases of Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar (c.1484-92), with its scenes of elephants and trumpeters, chariots and crowds. The canvases are included in the exhibition and are featured in a dedicated gallery of their own.
Equally monumental are the Mortlake tapestries of Raphael’s Act of the Apostles which are considered some of the most spectacular tapestries ever produced in England.
The spectacular Gonzaga purchase made Charles’ reputation as a serious collector, however his vast expense on art was not so popular at home and his great friend, the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in 1628. Charles carried on building his collection and began to commission paintings and portraits from famous artists Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the monumental portraits of the king and his family.
In all, Van Dyck painted about 40 portraits of Charles, his triple portrait of the King was sent to Rome for Bernini to model his bust. Van Dyck use of horses made the rather small king seem tall and heroic.
In the exhibition is a room dedicated to the Cabinet Room in Whitehall Palace, this was the king’s inner sanctum which housed smaller items such as bas-reliefs, miniatures, books, engravings, drawings, medals and precious objects.
It is with some irony that considering Charles’ collection was amassed by taking advantage of political turmoil in Europe that it would be dispersed by similar events much closer to home. The fall of Charles in the English Civil War led to the collection being used to repay royal debts, many of the works being sold to European courts.
This fascinating and remarkable exhibition illustrates how art was used in the 17th century for the self-aggrandisement of monarchs and leaders. Charles I was not the first and will not be the last leader to learn the lesson that using the nation’s wealth to finance your own vanity projects usually ends in disaster.
The exhibition launches the Royal Academy 250th celebrations and runs in parallel with Charles II: Art and Power at the Queens Gallery.
Video Review available here
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information and book tickets, visit the Royal Academy website here
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