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The regicides turn art-dealers

24 January 2014

Nicholas Cranfield enjoys a fine study of Charles I's pictures


Royal treasures: Anthony van Dyck's The Five Eldest Children of Charles I, from the book reviewed below

Royal treasures: Anthony van Dyck's The Five Eldest Children of Charles I, from the book reviewed below

The King's Pictures
Francis Haskell
Yale £30
Church Times Bookshop £27 (Use code CT639 )

PROFESSOR Francis Haskell was invited to give the inaugural series of Paul Mellon Lectures in 1994. He chose to look at the assembling and subsequent dispersal of the collections of Charles I. At his death in January 2000, his lectures remained unpublished.

In a handsomely illustrated volume that Yale has, with a generous subsidy, brought out for a mere £30, these six lectures, discreetly edited by Karen Serres, focus on the range of collecting at the early Stuart Court.

Much of the material expands what we already knew from the indefatigable work of Sir Oliver Millar, the late Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, and from Arthur MacGregor (1989); but Haskell takes the story further forward to show how the whole European experience of art changed when the King's collection was sold off by Oliver Cromwell and the regicides.

The first two lectures look at the collectors and collections being amassed in London alongside the royal collection. Charles, Prince of Wales, and King from 1625, was not alone in affecting a taste for European art, and amassed his collection alongside the likes of his cousin the Duke of Hamilton (1606-1649); his favourite George Villiers, whose own collecting was cut short by an assassin's knife in 1628; the Earl of Arundel, and others. Some of his agents emerge as dealers and collectors in their own right.

Oddly, Haskell makes no mention of the ambassador Sir Dudley Carleton, who, Robert Hill has shown, made use of his time in Venice and then at the Hague to establish a remarkable collection in much the same period, bringing Dutch painters such as van Miereveldt and van Honthorst to the attention of English collectors.

Whether such a collection as the King's was intended to be seen more widely is still much debated; it was never published, and we have only the word of Giovanni Sagrado, the Venetian ambassador at the time of "the sale of the late king's goods", to suggest that Parliament sold off the collection cheaply to broaden the responsibility of those who would feel the guilt of complicity as and when the experiment of the English Republic failed.

Haskell's inimitable voice is heard on every page, and the lavish illustrations from collections across Europe make the point that, although some of the works were returned to the Crown after the Restoration, many are still to be found across Europe.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints', Blackheath, in south London.

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