Charles I: King and Collector review – majestic collection fit for an unfit king

Royal Academy, London
This blockbuster show is chock-full of masterpieces. So why is our critic calling for revolution?

Just for a moment the tapestry of grandeur parts to reveal the brutal truth. Armies clash on an English field in a chaos of smoke and horses. From under a furled flag peers the grey, dead face of the monster Medusa, snakes writhing on her severed head. This hideous face and the armies behind it suggest all is not well with the British monarchy. In the foreground stands the young crown prince, Charles I’s eldest son. Still barely a teenager when this was painted in the early 1640s, he is portrayed by William Dobson with the proud bearing of a war leader. The painting prophesies that he will become a fearsome fighter. Like Medusa’s head that turned those who looked upon it to stone, his royal eye will petrify his enemies.

That, of course, is not what happened. Charles I was a catastrophic king who alienated his people and parliament so totally that by 1642 he provoked civil war in England, not to mention big trouble in Scotland and Ireland. Defeated and captured, in 1649 he was beheaded. His son fled abroad, and England became a republic until 1660.

And yet, with this single, fascinating exception of the civil war battle scene in Dobson’s portrait of the Prince of Wales, you’d never guess from this stonking baroque blockbuster of an exhibition that there was a violent revolution in England in the 1600s or that Charles I is generally acknowledged to have been a fatally incompetent ruler. He stares with godlike calm out of portraits, his mild characterless eye and pale thin face implacably asserting the divine right of kings.

Bizarre conviction … Van Dyck’s Triptych portrait of King Charles I of England.
Bizarre conviction … Van Dyck’s Triptych portrait of King Charles I of England. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Anthony van Dyck, the Antwerp-born painter and pupil of Rubens, became Charles’s most brilliant court artist. His surreal vision of three Charles Is was painted in the 1630s when the king wanted to commission a bust by the great Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. Van Dyck’s painting was done so that Bernini could picture the monarch (who he had never met) from every angle. In the centre he faces us full on, his ghostly eyes engaging ours. The other two heads reveal a straight profile and a three-quarter view. Yet Van Dyck exceeded his brief. He dressed the three kings in contrasting costumes – blue, red, gold – and given the scene a bizarre conviction, not just in the realism of every long, silky strand of regal hair but the cloudy sky that unifies Charles with his doubles. Bernini’s bust is long-lost in the fire that destroyed Whitehall Palace in 1698; the painting remains an eerie masterpiece in its own right.

Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine, 1633, by Van Dyck.
Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine, 1633, by Van Dyck. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The strangeness of the commission must have tickled Van Dyck, whose eye for the unusual is also seen in his nearby Self-Portrait with a Sunflower (c.1633) in which he points to the giant golden flower, radiating like the sun, its head as big as his own. There’s no doubting Van Dyck’s exceptional talent, but you do have to wonder why he was happy to coast along at court. Money and power, presumably. The central hall is given over to a grandiose array of his biggest paintings, including two massive pictures of Charles I on horseback.

By this time the Roundhead in me was beginning to rebel.

My anger, however, was not because I wasn’t enjoying the show. On the contrary. Charles I: King and Collector is a feast of great art. It brings together the jaw-dropping array of European masterpieces Charles I assembled before his untimely decapitation. Charles loved art, and believed that a great collection made a palace look truly royal. He commissioned leading artists of the day – Rubens as well as Van Dyck, the gifted female painter Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Gerrit Honthorst and Guido Reni, and when he bought the entire collection of the hard-up Dukes of Mantua he brought a treasure trove of Renaissance art to Britain.

The exhibition’s most spectacular room is dominated by Andrea Mantegna’s The Triumphs of Caesar, nine big square canvases that together show the opulence, barbarity, splendour and cruelty of ancient Rome. A soldier looks out at us sadly from a scene in which the empty armour of the dead is carried aloft in triumph. In another, captives trudge past on their way to be enslaved. On a hill, a ruined city reveals that Rome, too, will fall and all its harsh power is transient.

Treasure … Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c. 1484-92 by Andrea Mantegna.
Treasure … Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c. 1484-92 by Andrea Mantegna. Photograph: © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

After Charles I’s execution, his treasures were sold by the new Commonwealth. Many were rebought or otherwise got back by the monarchy after the Restoration in 1660 and are still owned by the Queen today. That’s the case with Mantegna’s Triumphs. Usually, they hang in what feels like a glorified garden shed at the side of Hampton Court Palace. Here, superbly installed and lit, at the right height, in a generous space so you can walk around and look at them properly, you can see them for what they are. They should be part of the national imagination. Why does the Queen need to keep such great art at Hampton Court where most people are more interested in the maze?

I found myself becoming even more revolutionary when I looked at the marble busts of Roman emperors that are beautifully installed in the same room as Mantegna’s masterpiece. These are ancient Roman sculptures from the 1st and 2nd century AD. They belong to the Queen and are also in Hampton Court, largely unnoticed.

The wonder and bafflement grow. Here is the Queen’s Dürer, a painting by this German Renaissance genius that’s better than any of the National Gallery’s paintings by him. Here is her Tintoretto, a smoky, shadowy masterpiece of expressiveness by this experimental Venetian Renaissance master. I’ve never seen either of these works before. Where do they usually hang – in a private palace or in an obscure corner of Kensington Palace or Hampton Court?

Not everything in this exhibition comes from the current Royal Collection. Many of Charles I’s masterpieces ended up abroad not to return. Some of his wonderful Titians have been lent by the Louvre and the Prado, including Conjugal Allegory, a tender, subtle image of love. And don’t be fooled into thinking the Royal Academy has definitively reunited Charles I’s lost collection. It has not got Leonardo da Vinci’s John the Baptist nor Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin from the Louvre, for instance. But the russet blazing sky in Titian’s The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops, lent by the Prado, makes up for a lot.

Titian’s The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops, 1540–41.
Blazing … Titian’s The Allocution of Alfonso d’Avalos to His Troops, 1540–41. Photograph: Museo Nacional del Prado

The magic of this exhibition is to reveal the development of European art at a critical moment in its story. Charles I hoarded Renaissance art while also employing contemporaries, led by Rubens and Van Dyck, who reinterpreted that art in the new style known as baroque. There’s a majestic moment when you look from Mantegna’s Triumphs to see Rubens’ Peace and War in the adjoining space. Rubens shows the fury of war held back so love and kindness can triumph. It’s like a reply to Mantegna’s vision of war – and in fact Rubens had been a court painter at Mantua and knew Mantegna’s work well.

But the exhibition’s refusal to engage with the civil war is not so much a political failing as a historical one. It robs us of the art’s proper context. The show includes a lovely drawing by Wenceslas Hollar of Whitehall Palace. Why not also include Hollar’s terrifying print of a vast crowd of puritan Londoners gloating at the execution of Charles’s minister Strafford in 1641? To tell the full story of the king and his country hurtling towards disaster would add to the drama of this show. It would have been better to move us with the tragic truth that in 1649 the ceiling of Whitehall’s Banqueting House by Rubens was virtually the last thing Charles saw before he was marched on to the scaffold. It is reasonable to wonder if the king’s aestheticism and love of art was somehow connected with his alienation from his subjects? In a Protestant country where many thought religious art was Catholic idolatry, this king was buying up magnificent Catholic paintings.

An exhibition of this scale must have been conceived back when David Cameron was still prime minister and the UK seemed a cosily conservative place. It opens at a time when the country seems to be headed for a revolution by the ballot box, and yet here is the Royal Academy not only celebrating absolute monarchy, but glorying in today’s Royal Collection and expecting us peasants to lap it up gratefully.

I’ve got a policy suggestion. Nationalise the egregious monarchist folly that is the Royal Collection. Put these wonderful paintings and sculptures in our public galleries where anyone can see them for free, any time we like. As this gorgeous and enraging exhibition proves, that would instantly give Britain the best national art galleries in the world.

Charles I, King and Collector, is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from 27 January until 15 April.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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