So ambitious sounded this exhibition that when the RA first announced it, I feared the aim would be unobtainable and that the result would be a let-down. Well. I needn’t have feared for this show is stunning. A remarkable feat with galleries full of remarkable art. Over 140 works on display – tapestries, paintings, sculpture and panels. A collection of greats that evoke one of the greatest and most influential art collections in history.
King Charles I’s collection was the most envied and most remarkable of its day. Van Dyck, Titian, Correggio, Rembrandt, Agnolo Bronzino, Mantegna, Jacopo Bassano, Tintoretto, Albrecht Durer, Veronese, Hans Holbein the Younger… The famous names drip from the collection’s inventory. However, on Charles’s execution, the collection was broken up and sold to repay his significant debts.
Masterpieces soon found themselves away from England and in the hands of the Spanish and French courts, as well as with numerous private individuals. The collection would never be together again – until now. For the RA has done what must have seemed surely impossible and convinced galleries across the world to loan back those artworks in order to recreate this historic collection, allowing us to assess it in (almost) its entirety once again.
And what a wonder it is/was/must have seemed at the time. The works from these great artists smother the walls of this exhibition, which is as huge as it is impressive. Just as an example, what a thrill it is to stand in the RA’s circular Central Hall surrounded by the huge iconic Van Dyck portraits of the King, whether it’s him as a chivalrous knight on horseback, or as a wise philosopher king, contemplatively surveying his kingdom.
Of course, this is art as propaganda (isn’t all commissioned art?) but there’s no doubting that these works demonstrate what an exciting painter Van Dyck was, so arresting with his elegance and that effortless blend of mythology and realism. But these were important pieces too, setting a new standard for Court painters that others rushed to match.
Elsewhere, the RA’s big galleries are filled with the large Raphael-based tapestries from the Mortlake Workshop, immense oil paintings of religious, historical and mythological stories (whether it be Tintoretto’s Esther collapsing before Ahasuerus, or Rubens’s St George), as well as royal subjects, including Titian’s Charles V and Holbein’s drawings of members of the Royal Court. There’s also the beautiful Crouching Venus and other Roman marble statues.
But even away from these obvious draws, I found gems in little corners, or in areas where they would be easy to overlook. Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother is another demonstration of the man’s mastery over light and shadow, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Woman in Green, 1530-32 is breathtakingly realistic, and the confrontation in Cristofano Allori’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1613, is disarming.
But aside from the fact that this is a terrific collection of masterpieces, what does this show reveal to us about Charles I himself? What does it tell us about the impact and influence of this famous collection?
Well, for a start, it tells us that the King had no qualms with spending huge amounts of taxpayers’ money on acquiring art. Even before he ascended to the throne in 1623, the then-Prince Charles was already visiting Madrid, picking up works from Veronese and Titian.
This spendthrift approach continued after his coronation, with influencers such as Thomas Howard, the Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers), as well as his own wife Henrietta Maria, persuading him (with not much resistance, it seems) to purchase the much-admired Gornzaga collection from the Duke of Mantua, which included, Correggio’s The School of Love, Titian’s The Supper at Emmaus, and Mantegna’s vast Triumph of Caesar canvases – all of which are on display here too).
In addition, he also looked to commission new work, especially from Van Dyck, who was appointed ‘principalle Paynter in Ordernarie to their Majesties’ in 1632, and whose vibrant, often monumental and spectacular works dominate this show.
In summary, the guy didn’t have a problem spending money. Obviously, this won him few supporters amongst the wider British public and was a critical factor in him losing his head. But it also meant that this utter commitment and devotion to art – and in supporting contemporary artists of the day such as Van Dyck, Rubens, Gentileschi and Guido Reni with critical commissions – made him a major shaper and influencer of the cultural scene, and that we have him to thank for such great artworks as Van Dyck’s Cupid and Psyche, 1639-40, and Rubens’s Minerva Protects Pax from Mars, 1629-30.
This exhibition is thrilling, yet what I found most interesting as I wandered around these fantastic galleries again and again, trying to take all of this splendour and excitement in, is how little art has truly changed. Yes, in style, but perhaps not in its role. Much like in the Royal Court back then, art is seen today as a marker of wealth and taste. Millionaires and billionaires buy artwork today because it makes them look good – as it did with Charles.
But it also seems that art cost a lot of money back then too, similar to today., You needed to be a King to amass a collection such as this back in the day, and you’d need to be damn wealthy to do the same today. And secure enough not to lose your head in the process.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, to April 15, 2018
Tickets from £20 (incl. Gift Aid donation). Concessions available.
To see more from the exhibition, have a look through my Facebook album.
1 Anthony van Dyck, Charles I, 1635-6. Oil on canvas, 84.4 x 99.4 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
2 Titian, The Supper at Emmaus, c.1530. Oil on canvas, 169 x 244 cm. Paris, Louvre Museum, Department of Paintings. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (musee du Louvre) / StÃphane MarÃchalle
3 Exhibition image of Van Dyck painting of Charles I, taken by me.
4 Roman, Aphrodite (‘The Crouching Venus’), second century, Marble, 119 cm. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
5 Correggio, Venus with Mercury and Cupid (‘The School of Love’), c.1525. Oil on canvas, 155.6 x 91.4 cm. The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1834. Photo © The National Gallery, London