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The axe and the auctioneer’s gavel

09 February 2018

Nicholas Cranfield on the fate of Charles I’s royal art collection

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Anthony Van Dyck, Charles I, 1635-36, on loan from the Queen

Anthony Van Dyck, Charles I, 1635-36, on loan from the Queen

ONLY three things need to be said about the Royal Academy’s opening exhibition of its anniversary year 1768-2018. Go. Go. Go.

I can explain why, but, in the face of such splendour, brilliantly showcasing more than 140 works from a royal collection that was dispersed after the 1649 execution of King Charles I, a review may be deemed superfluous.

“The Sale of the Century” was at first somewhat haphazard and entirely symbolic, as if the incoming republican government was embarrassed by the trappings of state. Oliver Cromwell spotted the risk of the late king’s goods’ being embezzled, and was also short of cash to pay off the king’s debtors and the wages of the Parliamentary army. Accordingly, six months after the regicide, an Act was passed “forfeiting the goods and chattels” of the former royal family.

Regular sales were held from October 1649, and many works ended up in Spain and in France, as well as in the private homes of London citizens. The first part of the exhibition “Charles II: Art and Power” at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace (to 13 May) takes up the story of how many such works later were returned.

Photo © Courtesy National Gallery of Art, WashingtonAnthony van Dyck, Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, 1633, on loan to the RA for this exhibition from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.39  

Colonel John Hutchinson, an officer who had signed the king’s death warrant, bought 23 paintings for £1349. With a sharp eye to turning a profit, he later sold one work of Titian (the so-called Pardo Venus, for which he had laid out £600) to Cardinal Mazarin for £7000.

Nor is it every day that a plumber gets to own a Titian; but the King’s Plumber at the Tower of London ended up with the 1559 St Margaret Triumphing over the Devil. Sotheby’s in New York sold it on 26 January for rather more (News, 26 January 2018).

Van Dyck’s sketch of a St George’s Day procession of the Garter Knights at Windsor in 1639 or 1640 (Ashmolean) was sold for £5. At the Restoration, it was bought back by the king’s painter, Sir Peter Lely. In 1680, it went for £15 to a “Mr Austin”, later passing to the Dukes of Rutland. It has been in Oxford (the Ashmolean) since 2002, and is a highlight of the last gallery in this show, next to a work regarded as Van Dyck’s last self-portrait (National Portrait Gallery).

The curators at the RA show just how Charles (1600-49) built up his collection, supplementing the works that he had inherited from his elder brother Prince Henry, who had died unexpectedly in 1612, and from his late mother, the Lutheran-born Anna of Denmark (d.1619), both great patrons of art. Like many of the good and great today, Charles purchased work through agents and often bought indiscriminately.

The Gonzaga inheritance in Mantua came under the hammer in 1627; the painter and government agent Rubens was among those who encouraged the king to stump up £18,000 to buy it. When it was unpacked in London, it altered English perceptions of art and challenged contemporary taste.

Charles’s French-born wife, Henrietta Maria, was the goddaughter of Pope Urban VIII, and she prevailed upon him for an introduction to his favourite artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In March 1636, Charles wrote asking Bernini, who once illustrated a book of the pope’s poems, to portray him after “the painted portrait we shall send you immediately”.

As a sculptor, Bernini usually worked only ad vivum. For this commission, however, he worked from the Van Dyck portrait that showed the royal sitter in three poses. The composition derived from another Italian masterpiece that hung in the palace at Whitehall, in the second Privy Lodging Room: Titian’s Portrait of a Goldsmith in Three Positions. That is now in Vienna, and is attributed to Lorenzo Lotto.

Bernini’s sculpture was lost in the fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698, but a weaker version, signed and dated 1636 by François Dieussart (1600-61), is in the centre of the first room in front of the Triple Portrait (HM The Queen). The Van Dyck Triple Portrait dominates the first room, or would if it had been hung a hand higher, for it to be seen clearly above the heads of other visitors.

Opposite are four self-portraits of artists who served at Charles’s court. A black-chalk drawing of the older Inigo Jones (1573-1652), from Chatsworth, shows the man who was presciently described at the outset of James VI and I’s reign as one “through whom there is hope that sculpture, modelling, architecture, painting, acting and all that is praiseworthy in the elegant arts of the ancients, may one day find their way across the Alps into our England”.

Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Stéphane MaréchalleTitian, The Supper at Emmaus, c.1530, on loan to the RA from the Department of Paintings, Louvre Museum, Paris, inv. 746

Peter Paul Rubens portrayed himself in an emollient piece designed to bring him to the attention of Prince Charles in 1622. Next to it is the best-known version of Anthony Van Dyck holding a sunflower, as an emblem of the art of painting and as a symbol of devotion, and a 1630 portrait of Daniel Mytens (c.1590-1647).

Mytens was soon overshadowed by Van Dyck, but his self-portrait and that of Rubens were displayed together in the Little Room between the Breakfast Chamber and the Privy Gallery at Whitehall, alongside Orazio Gentileschi’s delightfully beguiling Head of a Woman of 1630-35, which changed hands again earlier this year and is here in one of the last galleries alongside his Finding of Moses, which had been painted for the queen at Greenwich, and which she took with her into exile at the Château des Colombes.

A map of the presumed layout of Whitehall Palace appears in the catalogue, but it would have been useful to have it to hand in the exhibition, as the curators have located many of the individual items, drawing on an inventory of 1639, besides giving the auction prices reported at the Commonwealth sale. Works on display also include treasures from Somerset House, which Prince Charles had inherited as Denmark House from his mother in 1619, and from the royal palaces of St James’s, where he had preferred living, and Hampton Court.

Rubens painted the adolescent Vincenzo II Gonzaga, later the 7th Duke of Mantua, around the age of ten. It was valued at £6 when it was sold to a London syndicate in 1651. Now held at Saltram (NT), this portrait was the first exhibit in “Princely Portraits”, an exhibition in Paris before Christmas at the Palais du Luxembourg, where, to my mind, it easily outshone two other portraits of the same sitter.

Rubens painted for the Mantuan court between June 1600 and March 1603, and returned to the Gonzagas in February 1604, leaving their service in February 1605. He had clearly established a rapport with the family, as the intimacy of the blushing heir suggests. Charles most probably acquired the delicate portrait during his trip to Spain in his hapless pursuit of the Infante in 1623.

Duke Vincenzo died childless in 1627 and it was his collection that Charles I bought, on the advice of Rubens. The thought crossed my mind that Charles, the reckless suitor who had returned empty-handed from Madrid, might have been comforted by such an affecting portrayal of innocent boyhood more than by some of the gifts showered on him by King Felipe IV, which included the iconic Charles V with a Dog (Titian, dated 1533, and sent from the Prado) and the Mars, Venus and Cupid that Paolo Veronese painted in response to the poesie hat Titian had painted for Felipe II in the 1550s.

The third gallery at Burlington House has been dramatically staged to display the nine canvases of “The Triumphs” of Caesar. Giorgio Vasari claimed in the 1550s that this was “the best thing that Andrea Mantegna ever painted”, and, when it came to the Commonwealth sales, the paintings were bought in by Cromwell (they had been valued at £1000) and returned to the Long Gallery at Hampton Court. Attempts were made to design tapestries from them but were never fully realised; the Duke of Buccleuch has three such Mortlake tapestries from the later 1670s.

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017Andrea Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar: The Vase Bearers, c.1484-92, lent by the Queen

It is much easier to see “The Triumphs” (each a little more than two metres square) in Piccadilly than in the Orangery at Hampton Court, although they are better lit there. The works were heavily restored for William III in the 1690s, and again in 1717, so that at the outset of the reign of Queen Victoria it was claimed “that the original colour is only in a very few instances perceptible”. Later, they were all but hidden behind glass, in a gallery reflecting light from a row of windows.

Seeing the nine paintings much more closely than is usually possible, I was reminded of a story that the late critic Brian Sewell used to enjoy embellishing. When he worked for a noted London auction house in 1963, he was charged with cataloguing an outrageously large work by Burne-Jones: The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Ponce, Puerto Rica) is six and a half metres in length.

This caused untold problems for displaying it in a Bond Street showroom. When the chairman of the auction house came to view it before the sale, it ripped its moorings. Instead of saving its fall with a steadying hand, the chairman ended up wrapped inside 18 square metres of canvas. As he fought his way out, more and more of the paint flaked off, leaving a trail of destruction on the floor.

Sewell knew that Joan Seddon had been hired by the Crown to restore the Mantegna with John Brealey, and, calling in favours, got her to abandon Hampton Court for the weekend to work with him repainting the Burne-Jones through the night. How much here is by Mantegna’s hand?

The colossal scale of these changed art in England once and for all. As well as the remarkably beautiful Mortlake tapestries of Raphael’s “Apostles series”, four of which are here, while the cartoons have been left to be seen free in the V&A, the three portraits of the king by Van Dyck, placed around the central octagon gallery, make this evident. No taller than our own dear Queen, Charles I gained immeasurably in authority when depicted as a horseman. In turn, these huge canvases frame the royal family (“The King’s Greate Peece”) in Gallery VI.

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017Roman, Aphrodite (“The Crouching Venus”), second century, on loan from the Queen  

Three side galleries show the range of Renaissance art, both from Germany and the Low Countries, but predominantly from Italy, bought into the collection. The Gossaert Adam and Eve (c.1520) inspired Milton’s description in Book IV of Paradise Lost; and the violent canvases of Palma il Giovane of The Triumph of David and the pendant Conversion of St Paul appear almost theatrical.

Visitors will need to hold back their energy until one of the last galleries, which houses gems from the Cabinet Room. Portrait sketches by Holbein include the ginger-bearded hipster William Reskimer and St Thomas More’s father and son, as well as miniatures by him and by the Olivers, which are shown with bronzes by Francesco Fanelli and commemorative medals. Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Woman (The Artist’s Mother) made only £4 in December 1651. It hangs here as an afterthought.

Inevitably, there are gaps. The lenders have been extravagantly generous, but I was disappointed not to see the Caravaggios; The Death of the Virgin now in the Louvre is often ignored by those hell-bent on seeing the boxed-in Mona Lisa, while the Queen has hung on to The Call of Peter and Andrew.

Nor do we get to see any paintings by Da Vinci or Gentileschi’s ceiling painting for Greenwich (now vandalised and cut down in size for Marlborough House). One oil sketch of The Apotheosis of James VI and I makes do for the Banqueting House ceiling at Whitehall, underneath which Charles walked out to his death on the scaffold.

At the opening, the Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures announced a research project to compile an online catalogue of the collection. Three cheers for that.


“Charles I: King and Collector” is at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 15 April. Phone 020 7300 8000.


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